Friday 20 March 2015

Verdi - La Traviata (Opera North, 2015 - Belfast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opera North, 2015

Oliver von Dohnányi, Alessandro Talevi, Anna Jeruc-Kopec, Victoria Sharp, Louise Collett, Ji-Min Park, Stephen Gadd, Daniel Norman, Peter Savidge, Nicholas Butterfield, Dean Robinson

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 18 March 2015

La Traviata might be the most performed opera in the world, but in some ways its popularity just makes it more of a challenge for an opera company to find a way of revitalising and renewing it in a new production. Aside from the musical resources and talent needed to perform it, there are also audience expectations to consider, which in my experience means that good productions of La Traviata are common, but great ones are rarer. Opera North's new production managed to strike a good balance between performance and audience expectations. It wasn't a particularly adventurous La Traviata, but it did eventually overcome the conventional mannerisms to get to the emotional heart of the work.

The opening Act however wasn't particularly auspicious. It did the decadent Belle Époque well, making Violetta's party look like an authentic out-of-control revelry/orgy that might have been more in keeping with the reputation of a courtesan than some stuffy formal dinner party. As the work can be rather circumspect about how Violetta's earns her keep, this is a good way of establishing that. Musically, it felt like we were just running through the numbers, but you can't blame Opera North for that any more than you can blame Verdi for writing such popular and memorable tunes. You have to give the audience what they expect, and Opera North did that at the outset and gave maybe a little more than that later.

At the very least, Act I made it abundantly clear that we had a stunning Violetta in Anna Jeruc-Kopec. She looked the part, sang with accomplishment and conviction, with feeling and personality. Ji-Min Park's Alfredo didn't make quite as much of an impact, but this is not his Act. That comes at both ends of Act II and there he handled all the emotional extremes of Alfredo's rapid fall from rapturous love to bitterness, anger and disappointment with a strong and emotive delivery. In between, we enjoyed Stephen Gadd's Georgio Germont, balanced between stern disapproval and some measure of sympathy for Violetta, with a warm, secure vocal delivery. His duets with Anna Jeruc-Kopec were delightful, Jeruc-Kopec demonstrating how good her performance was in those moments of intense distress.

From there on it there was less of the stop/start number playing broken up by audience applause. In La Traviata, that's usually a good sign, showing that the audience is less focussed on recognition of the arias and evaluation of the performances and has become caught up in the emotion and the drama of it all. You don't feel particularly inclined to applaud someone's life being taken apart on the stage, no matter how technically accomplished the performance and delivery. This is the magic that Verdi and Opera North manage to achieve with La Traviata, drawing the audience in with consummate skill and doing it almost imperceptibly.

While Alessandro Talevi's direction and production design didn't appear to make much of an impact then, it was actually very cleverly and carefully planned to match Verdi's musical construction. There's a musical arc to the work that opens contemplatively with (you can assume) Violetta alone in the overture, breaks into revelry at the Baron's party, builds up to rapturous love that then declines through the second half to a party that follows a similar downward trajectory, ending with Violetta again facing her mortality alone. Aside from the strong dramatic construction, Verdi's music also follows a similar coherent pattern that hits all the key points, with musical melodies/leitmotifs and phrases recurring in different guises that remind one of the earlier occasions they were played. It's masterful and highly effective.

Madeleine Boyd's set designs use a very simple means of ensuring that there's a visual symmetry that matches Verdi's musical construction. On the most basic level, there's a large bed in place in Act I that transforms into a jetty for Act II's country house scene and then into a stage and a gambling table for Act III. It's a simple device, but clever, ensuring that you don't view these Acts as random scenes, but can see the continuity between them. One scene reminds you of the other under different circumstances, much the same way that Verdi's score does. What lies behind those scenes is a little more difficult to establish here, but there is some effort to get beyond the traditional imagery and be a little more representative of the underlying emotions and sentiments.

An endoscopic image of, presumably, the tuberculosis bacteria working its way through her lungs, is visible during the overture, Violetta facing it, confronting her fate, the bright circular image transforming into a full moon outside during Act I. The blissful love scene of Act II - where  wedon't actually see Alfredo and Violetta happy together - opens with Violetta contemplating the infinity of water meeting sky. In Act IV, the masked Parisian carnival revellers seated in tiers outside the window applaud Violetta's dramatic death scene.

None of this particularly adds to any great insight or understanding of the work and its message - it certainly doesn't highlight Verdi's scathing critique of social hypocrisy towards women who fall outside accepted boundaries - but it provides a distinct character for the production that doesn't stray too far away from the traditional reading. What's important is that, judging from the response of the audience, it works to draw you into the drama and the experiences of the characters. Rather more depends on how good the singers are in expressing those intentions, and if there was nothing unusual in how they were directed, the fine singing carried the full weight of the sentiments though to the devastating conclusion towards which the performance had been so imperceptibly and effectively building.