La Traviata

Score by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Opera North
The Lowry, Salford

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Máire Flavin as Violetta Valéry and Oliver Johnston as Alfredo Germont Credit: Richard H Smith
Victoria Sharp as Flora Bervoix (top) and Gavan Ring as Gastone (centre) with the Chorus of Opera North Credit: Richard H Smith
Máire Flavin as Violetta Valéry Credit: Richard H Smith
Máire Flavin as Violetta Valéry and Oliver Johnston as Alfredo Germont with the Chorus of Opera North Photo Credit: Richard H Smith
Matthew Stiff as Doctor Grenvil and Amy J Payne as Annina Credit: Richard H Smith
Alison Langer as Violetta Valéry Credit: Richard H Smith

The current visit by Opera North to The Lowry includes some radical productions and one undeniable classic. A wicked woman with a heart of gold is a standard feature of melodrama but has seldom been better used than in Verdi’s La Traviata.

Knowing she is on borrowed time, Violetta Valéry (Máire Flavin), suffering from tuberculous, makes an ostentatious display of living life to the full. She challenges society’s puritanical norms, partying and being supported financially by her lovers. The unexpected devotion of the gauche Alfredo Germont (Oliver Johnston) prompts Violetta to re-evaluate her reckless attitude and care for someone other than herself, but an intervention from Alfredo’s father Giorgio (Stephen Gadd) pushes her to an act of sacrifice that has consequences for everyone.

Tuberculous is a deceptive disease, flushed cheeks giving the impression of health rather than of fever, and little in the opera can be taken at face value. Violetta regards herself as a life force, the mistress of ceremonies—as the overture plays, she and her guests behave as silent sirens with a swaying dance, enticing unwary guests into her circle. But director Alessandro Talevi takes a merciless approach, denying Violetta such comfortable self-deception.

The production treats Violetta not as a glamorous seductress but as a tawdry reality TV star whose tragedy is regarded by those around her as cheap entertainment. Towards the end of act one, Violetta’s guests behave less like lively partygoers and more like vampires—crawling towards her, trying to absorb some slight substance. The atmosphere is jaded, the chorus of Opera North seeming determined to drink themselves into oblivion.

The dominant feature, as the curtain rises, is a central display of a gigantic eye observing events. This judgemental approach continues throughout the opera, the closing scene is both cruel and stunning with Violetta on her deathbed being watched by a masked audience dressed formally as if for, well, a night at the opera. Only in the second act is Violetta allowed relief—an opportunity to escape from relentless observation as the background shifts to a clear sky. Although she is free from the decadent influence of the party-going crowd, Violetta remains subservient to other people—indulging Alfredo’s idealised fantasy of how lovers should behave.

Oliver Johnston takes the brave approach of emphasising Alfredo’s immaturity. In the opening act, he is puppy-dog eager and unable to believe his luck Violetta might pay him any attention. He then becomes cocky and takes her love for granted before sliding into childish petulance. Stephen Gadd is a terrifying, judgemental figure: ramrod erect and carrying himself like an undertaker, he conveys society’s pitiless, and it turns out incorrect, assessment of Violetta.

Máire Flavin is a fragile and penitent Violetta; even in the opening scene when dressed to the nines she is barefoot and seems more at home in a simple nightgown. She carries herself as someone convinced the worst is about to happen. The self-aware approach taken by Flavin makes the famous drinking song ‘’Libiamo ne' lieti calici" in act one more desperate than celebratory, a defiant cry against the dying of the light.

Opera North’s darkly seductive production of La Traviata is one to die for.

Reviewer: David Cunningham