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NZ Opera: La Traviata - review

Jun 20, 2014 Theatre

La Traviata
NZ Opera

Aotea Centre
June 19, 2014

From the moment the prelude begins, you know you are in for a great, engrossing story. There’s a lilting, hesitant, emerging melody, and there she is, Violetta, the consumptive courtesan, singing already. Dressed in scarlet, everyone else in white tie and black ball gowns, she commands the stage, fends off the men, and falls, of course, for the man who has fallen for her.

The role of Violetta requires a bold coloratura soprano: she’s got to pitch it high and bright, and then come straight back at you, higher and brighter, with more, and more, and more again, until finally (this being a woman dying of consumption after all) she winds it down again. Lorina Gore is up for all that, confident and resonant, and there are moments in her many arias where you are simply in awe of her tonal richness, her surety and her power.

The role also requires delicacy and emotional punch, and on opening night Gore didn’t quite deliver those. Actually, I’m inclined to think the fault for that is not really with her, but with the story, and with the production.

Despite what you might start off by thinking, this is not a moving tale of woe. It has the structure of a tragic love story: boy and girl get a good thing on, and fate conspires to destroy it. But structure can be deceiving. Violetta’s beau Alfredo is no Romeo: he’s a morally obnoxious idiot, about whom we see or hear nothing to suggest anyone would ever fall for him. Samuel Sakker carries this off very well, his voice splendid and his eyebrows, running diagonally up his forehead to almost meet at the top, providing the perfect visual expression of his oafishness.

But still. What does she see in him? We’re just meant to take it on trust, because that sort of thing is not supposed to matter in opera. I’m not sure why, because it implies we should admire the singing and not worry if it leaves us cold.

Madame Butterfly has a similar setup, of course, but the plight of Cio-Cio San is genuinely tragic – possibly because Puccini in Butterfly was smart enough not to give Pinkerton a bunch of romantic leading-man arias. Verdi in Traviata tries to have it both ways: his Alfredo is a villain with the songs of a hero. It’s alienating, and it’s tempting to not look the surtitles and refuse to let your brain follow the story, just so you can enjoy the beauty of the music. But why go to the show if you’re going to do that?

You want the production to speak to you, and in this instance that raises another problem. The setting is full of non-specific gowns and suits and chandeliers – that all-purpose opera world – and the staging has no discernible interpretive purpose. Director Kate Cherry doesn’t seem to be exploring anything or trying to tell us anything. It’s as if the company decided to just stand up the music and parade the frocks, and called in Cherry to make sure the singers didn’t bump into each other.

I don’t think that’s good enough, especially when the story desperately needs to be taken by the scruff and wrenched into a tale worth telling.

I’m not complaining about the set itself, mind. Christina Smith has designed a brilliantly alluring two-sided box, serving as a room from which people spill. It shimmers in gold and shadowy grey, is both reflective and translucent, and serves perfectly as an expression of Violetta’s decadent, glamorous, insubstantial world. And to top it off, she has enormous chandeliers that are lowered to the floor where they sag like glittering sea creatures stranded on a beach. Death will come to us all, even those who are beautiful.

Yes, you should go. It’s Verdi, and the singing is great, and the APO under Emmanuel Joel-Hornak is pretty good too. A bit ploddy, but they deliver the singers to you, and that’s the most important thing.

NZ Opera needs to get a bit brave on it. I love that they do the classics: the music is always worth listening to and everyone deserves the chance to experience the great works. But to do them without artistic purpose? That’s an abrogation of duty, isn’t it?

One more thing: there’s a character called Flora who has no apparent musical purpose, but they’ve given her absolutely knockout frocks. Way better than Violetta’s. What’s that about?

La Traviata runs at the Aotea Centre until June 29 and in Wellington July 11-15.

Photo: Neil Mackenzie.


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