Opera review: La Traviata delights the eye and ear

Samuel Sakker and Lorina Gore

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi

Directed by Kate Cherry
NZ Opera

Aotea Centre, Auckland
Until June 29, then
St James, Wellington
July 11 – 19

La Traviata is an elegant moral tale with themes about love that have not changed over the last 150 years but other aspects have changed markedly.

When it was first performed in 1853, La Traviata was a tale of a fallen woman, corrupted by her own sensuality and moral failure. Now it is a story of a woman brought down by the conservative morality of a society that stigmatises those who step outside the bounds of civil society.

At the centre of the various themes is the nature of love in all its forms – romantic love, lust, the love of family and the love of individual freedoms.

Being a work about love, any production succeeds or fails on the way in which these notions are conveyed and empathised with. This was not always the case in this production although the staging, costumes and the singing provide an effervescent display that captivates the eye and ear.

The sets are spectacular with the stage dominated by a large free-standing room, a stylistic feature which designer Christina Smith has used in her design of NZO’s Madam Butterfly. The mirrored surfaces of this space are well used, concentrating the action and providing something of a metaphor for both the gilded cage as well as the notion of the superficial façade.

Violetta, sung by Lorina Gore, provides some touching moments when she sings while leaning against the mirrored wall, providing multiple reflections that emphasise her sense of contemplation. The ballroom scenes are particularly sophisticated with a dozen elaborate chandeliers adding sparkle.

By contrast, the opening scene with one large chandelier which has crashed on the ground is like a reference to Phantom of the Opera and a premonition of disaster and death. In the first half, we are treated to some impressive singing by Gore dressed in red, standing out from the black and white set and costumers of the chorus.

However, despite her vivacious voice her initial arias lack an intensity of emotion. Later in the opera she produces some stunning singing as with her “Alfredo, di queste core” (If you know how much I loved you), which she sings with a forlorn pathos flecked with anguish and despair. Her final death scenes are heart wrenching as her voice gasps and quavers with a real sense of loss, love and sadness.

Samuel Sakker as Alfredo is inconsistent as well. Despite his luxurious voice in the first act he is unable to convey the emotional agitation he is required to sing about. However, in Act II he gives an eloquent expression of his unfilled love. The lack of emotional vibrancy may have been partly due to the fact that the couple rarely look at each other while singing their duos but remain fixed on the audience.

In the later acts there is a much greater chemistry between the two but they seem more comfortable singing their solos about love than when they have to clasp each other.

The most impressive singer is David Stephenson as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father. He provides a strong emotional character with his furious and exciting singing that is genuinely powerful and unsettling conveyed with carefully measured articulation. He brilliantly conveys, with gesture demeanour and voice, a man using his superior moral station to impose his will.

The Chapman Tripp Chorus, as ever, sings gloriously and inhabits the stage in a relaxed and realistic way. The only problem is with the dance sequence featuring Gypsies and Matadors where they seem unnecessarily crammed on the stage. The dance could have been better performed with only a few of the cast.

The Auckland Philharmonia is guided by conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, who ensures the music adds to the emotional drama of the opera, never dominating the singers, creating a rich soundscape that envelopes the cast and audience, making for a moving and inspiring evening.

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