Thursday, 11 April 2013

Viva Verdi!


There is a reason Verdi’s operas are so popular. He intended them to be characterised by sincerity, humanity and passion and these ingredients have an enduring quality. WA Opera is celebrating the composer’s bicentenary anniversary with a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s lavish 1994 Opera Australia production La Traviata. It’s a difficult opera to ruin and this production allows those three ingredients to shine through.  



 The opera opens in the courtesan Violetta’s Paris apartment with a hedonistic high society party and closes in the now-derelict home with its owner dying from tuberculosis. In between is a riot of colour, song and dance charting the emotional journey of Violetta and her lover Alfredo. The production accentuates the melodramatic storyline with a decadent set and costumes ((Michael Yeargan and Peter J. Hall) and Verdi would surely have delighted in the realism added by Nigel Levings’ ‘verismo’ lighting.

Verdi was keenly involved in the 1853 premiere of La Traviata. He specified that to sing the heroine “one must be young, have a graceful figure and sing with passion.” Unfortunately the soprano singing Violetta weighed in around 300 pounds and made a fiasco of the premiere. A year later Verdi tried again with a more satisfying cast and the opera was a triumph.

Fortunately WA Opera didn’t have to look far to find young Perth soprano Katja Webb whose porcelain-doll figure fits Verdi’s description perfectly. Webb has a velvet-toned voice but she isn’t quite a dramatic coloratura (yet) and she struggles with the ornamentation in the first act. This is forgotten though in the wrenching illness and tragedy of the last two acts, sung with absorbing fragility.

Rosario La Spina’s Alfredo is lyrical and impassioned and the emotional connection between the two is convincing. Douglas McNicol is manipulative and then remorseful as Alfredo’s interfering father and Fiona Campbell and Sarah-Janet Brittenden are strong in supporting roles.

The WA Opera Chorus is in top form with a resounding Brindisi and sparkling party scenes. The WA Symphony Orchestra delivers the emotional ballast under conductor Joseph Colaneri, with clean entries and well-balanced cohesion with the singers.

The production allows Verdi’s unerring sense of the dramatic to prevail and that is its strength. In Act Three Violetta has left Alfredo to spare his reputation. Fresh morning light pours through the French windows onto the heroine now ravaged by illness. She finds renewed energy but the music tells another story: low strings and brass intone a funeral march while the violins weave strained harmonies over the top. The audience feels Violetta’s impending death before her friends will admit it. Each carefully devised musical moment deepens our pity. Viva Verdi! The passion and sincerity of your music connects with our humanity centuries later.

This review copyright The West Australian newspaper 2013.

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