Thoughtful Traviata

15 Nov

After last night’s half full Bartered Bride, I was getting concerned about Newcastle’s opera audience.  At least the Traviata tonight (14th November) was just about sold out and there was a warmth in the auditorium and a sense that there was a nice mixture of people who knew their opera and those for whom this was a first visit to an opera which, by my calculations, hasn’t been done here for over a decade.

They were treated to what struck me as a thoughtful, intelligent, imperfect performance but one where the pluses hugely outweighed the doubts.

The first act was the least good.  The prelude seems to consist of a video of the TB bacillus developing and close-ups of the internal parts of the lungs.  I wasn’t convinced that this was either helpful or necessary.  We begin in a sleazy party in the 19th century.  It’s good to be reminded of exactly what Violetta’s profession is even if the execution of it looks almost as cliched as the David McVicar Rigoletto.  There’s a very promising, young looking Alfredo from Ji-Min Park who sings softly and uses the words, a really good Douphol from Peter Savidge and a vocally excellent Violetta from Hye-Youn Lee.  What I missed from her, though was any individuality or sense that she had a clue what Violetta was about in this act.  Her Sempre libera was pretty stunning, though.

The second act improved considerably.  Visually, it looked absolutely right – a simple blue cyclorama and almost bare stage was all you needed.  Mr Park sang his aria really well – he looks young and gauche and caught the sheer simplicity and inexperience of Alfredo.  Roland Wood’s arrival as Germont raised the temperature even further.  From his entrance he seemed to have the character right.  His opening lines made you feel that here is a real Verdi baritone and he and Ms Lee knocked sparks off each other.  The direction of the two of them was brilliant – the way in which they touched or reacted to being touched was enormously persuasive.  Ms Lee does misery beautifully and her expression as she wrote her letter to Alfredo was heartbreaking.  Mr Park did his realisation of her desertion really well and the relationship with his father was wonderfully developed – the two of them sitting, father trying to communicate and failing was absolutely great – except that Germont’s cabaletta was cut.  It’s an interesting comment on what was once commonplace that now its absence feels wrong.  Mr Wood would have sung it marvellously.

The second scene was done very well and, for the finale, you had the spotlight on each of the principals as they conveyed, absolutely accurately, the different emotions.  I’m not sure, though, why the chorus had to sway.

In Act III, Ms Lee sang her aria (one verse only) well and movingly, the reconciliation with Alfredo was good, with Mr Park doing a fine, loving, tender, Parigi, o cara and completely rejecting his father.  The only thing wrong seemed to be the audience of masked men in evening dress who applauded as Violetta died.

I enjoyed Alexander Talevi’s direction of Don Giovanni here hugely.  Traviata doesn’t give quite the same scope for invention.  He was at his best in the direction of the characters and in some of the images – the two Germonts, back to back for Di Provenza for example.  Elsewhere it looked rather conventional or with ideas that just didn’t help.  I admired Madeleine Boyd’s single set hugely.

As I’ve suggested, the principals were good.  Mr Wood’s career strikes me as about ready to take off.  I’m not sure that I would like to hear Mr Park go to heavier roles than this, but he’d be a lovely Nemorino or Ernesto and Ms Lee has a really secure, technically excellent voice which is hugely exciting – again, a good Gilda, I should think.  Apart from Peter Savidge’s outstanding Douphol, the lesser roles were pretty much cast from Opera North’s chorus – and very well indeed.  If this is Opera North’s way of economising, it didn’t seem to me to compromise quality much.

The conductor was Gianluca Marciano.   I thought he conducted well but without the same certainty or thoughtfulness of Elder. He adotped some slow tempi – particularly for Alfredo in the Act II finale – and a nice rubato and you felt he knew what he was doing.  Orchestra and chorus were perfectly fine.

So this was the sort of alive, alert, thoughtful Traviata that I’d expect from Opera North.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good, enjoyable evening that deserved its really enthusiastic applause.  It’s worth a visit and it held up well against the other three that I’ve seen this year.

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