La Traviata by Opera North is a powerful production on every front. Sublime singing, impressive set and lighting, and a story-line that is made to feel ‘real’, despite it’s historical setting. With some rousing, well-known tunes, astonishing vocal gymnastics, and empathetic direction by Alessandro Talevi, it is a great introduction to opera.
Opera seems to ‘scare’ the general populace, who might otherwise be happy to watch a musical or a complicated play. In the few opera productions I have seen I have learned two really useful things: if sung in a foreign language, simple subtitles at the side of the stage clearly explain the plot – and are very brief, as many of the phrases are repeated musically – so they do not detract from the production. And secondly, what is evident from the glory of Verdi’s musical masterpiece in ‘La Traviata’ is that the music itself tells the story, whether you have the surtitles or not.
The Opera North orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Webb, produces the most beautiful, quality music, moderated from a feather-light violin to the full, explosive wall of sound from the 50+ orchestra, and it is a privilege just to witness this element of the performance.
The story of La Traviata is a ‘typical’ tragedy, one where so much suffering could have been avoided, had people just talked to each other! But that’s a modern sensibility viewing a 19th century piece of work, and our heroine, Violetta, actually sacrifices her own happiness for the benefit of others, so it is not a tragedy without some redemption. A high-class courtesan, Violetta is introduced to Alfredo, who has fallen in love with her. At first resisting the belief that she can be happy with an ‘ordinary’ life and that she even deserves love, she finally accepts his love and starts a new life with him in the country. Alfredo’s father sees this relationship as bringing shame on his family and pleads with Violetta to leave Alfredo. She does so, and when the truth is revealed, it is too late.
Alison Langar, as Violetta, is stunning. Her vocal control, from light, flirtatious trills and decorations, to impassioned cries of grief and loss, is simply incredible and defies what one imagines is possible with the human voice. Langar portrays a full and believable character, tormented by guilt and shame, struggling to acknowledge her own worth, and from gorgeous, magnetic courtesan to vulnerable TB patient, her performance is faultless. Nico Darmanin provides a weighty and balanced Alfredo, his surety of devotion a grounding point for the story. His rich tone and expressive voice works beautifully against Langar’s and they are a joy to watch together.
The impressive chorus are pin-sharp, their roles from prostitutes to gypsies to society hosts, full of depth and attention to detail, supported, needless to say, by brilliant vocals. Again, the subtle hand and body movements here, sometimes in slow-motion, add a good deal of interest and texture to the background of many scenes.
The set and costume design by Madeleine Boyd create a sumptuous, decadent opening in the salons of Paris, deep colours and rich textures, which, with Matthew Haskins sympathetic lighting, provide a window into a time and place from the past. The sinuous movement in this opening, by Victoria Newlyn, is hypnotic and sensuous, almost making one holds one’s breath. A literal window is provided for a peeping tom to peer into the opening scene, a design feature which is used throughout the show to different effect, most strikingly to present a ‘biological’ representation of the TB which Violetta suffers with. At the end, the spyhole becomes a lens through which aristocrats look on, disconnected from what they see before them. These ‘film’ elements add a fresh perspective which avoids it being a purely ‘historical’ presentation and adds that ‘edge’ for which Opera North productions are renowned.
There was so much to take in in this production, it would be worth a second and third viewing to really appreciate the fine attention to detail. It is certainly worth a first viewing, particularly if you have never before attended an opera, as Opera North presents a new perspective on a classic, and does it with huge style and heart.