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Verdi, La Traviata: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Opera.  Conductor: Emmanuel Joel-Hornak.  Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 19.11.2008 (SRT)

Violetta – Carmen Giannattasio
Alfredo – Fedrico Lepre
Germont – Richard Zeller
Flora – Katherine Allen
Annina – Catriona Barr


Orchestra of Scottish Opera
Chorus of La Traviata
Emmanuel Joel-Hornak (conductor)


David McVicar (director)
Tanya McCallin (designer)
Jennifer Tipton (lighting designer)
Andrew George (choreographer)

After nearly going to the wall a few years ago, Scottish Opera’s renaissance continues with this triumphant new staging of Traviata, directed by David McVicar, Glasgow’s greatest contribution to contemporary opera.  Musically and visually this evening is an almost unqualified success and any opera lover should snap up a ticket while they have the chance.

McVicar sets the work in the time period of its creation, Paris of the 1850s.  His set is peopled with party-goers dressed in quietly plush evening wear, and the whole things feels solidly traditional.  The evening is full of McVicar’s characteristic insights, however.  Death and decay are present from the outset; as we enter the theatre the curtain is already up and we are given a flash of the story’s end: Violetta’s furniture is being parcelled up and the debt collectors are overseeing the repossession.  Alfredo, alone, walks along the front of the stage while the prelude plays, contemplating the loss of his beloved, walking among wilted flowers, a permanent feature of the evening and a reminder that decay is at the heart of this story.  The most powerful reminder comes when the party begins in Act I and we see that the floor of the set is Violetta’s gigantic tombstone, cracked and crumbling.  This sense of emptiness permeates the decadence of this Parisian demi-monde: the party guests in Act 1 are shown to be voracious beasts when the food is served, and their raucous behaviour in both party scenes stands in contrast to Violetta’s quiet dignity.  This clash is underlined during Sempre libera when Violetta grabs the very things that should give her pleasure (flowers, wine) and smashes them.  The second verse of this aria carries significantly less conviction than the first: despite what she tries to tell herself (and us) this woman is ready to abandon this hedonistic world and turn to a future of love.  Furthermore, during the first scene of Act II Violetta is dressed all in white in sharp contrast to the heavy Victorian darkness of Alfredo’s father.  There are wilted flowers here too, out on the terrace: the decay is still there, staved off for only a short while.

McVicar creates some marvellous stage pictures through means of different layers of curtains which are very effective at suggesting mood. After the departure of Violetta’s guests in Act I, for example, a curtain at the rear of the stage draws across ever so slightly, suggesting more privacy and intimacy.  The most striking effect occurs with a clever double curtain at the beginning of Act II, dividing the intimacy of Violetta and Alfredo’s bedroom from the business world of their study.  Disturbingly, during the Act III prelude we see the repossession men sitting outside Violetta’s bedroom, ready to grab the goods as soon as she is dead.  It’s the most powerful staging of this perennial masterpiece that I’ve seen for a long time, eye-opening yet genuinely unsettling.

Luckily the singing is every bit as good.  Carmen
Giannattasio’s Violetta is a triumph. There is a resonance to her voice that rings through the theatre, riding the big moments, such as Amami Alfredo, with exhilarating security, while paling down for the intimate duets like Dite alla giovine.  The big, fast moments are utterly secure with fantastic coloratura at the end of Act II.  She seemed less comfortable with the slower episodes: Ah forse ’lui was rather unfocused in comparison, and there were some minor pitching issues in the final duet of Act III, but these should not detract from a thrilling performance and a magnificent Scottish Opera debut.  Next to her Fedrico Lepre’s Alfredo was rather pale and lightweight.  He couldn’t ring out in the way that she did, and his voice seemed just plain quieter, without the ping that one hopes for in this role.  His aria and cabaletta at the start of Act II were marvelous, though, encouraging me to forgive lapses elsewhere.  As Germont, Richard Zeller has lost this ardent thrill that his voice had when he sang Macbeth for this company in 1999, but he has the gravitas and authority for this role.  Di Provenza was very effective, and the harsh quality to his voice made his portrayal of Germont all the more unpleasant.  The minor roles were all taken well.  The chorus, specially assembled since Scottish Opera lost its permanent team, sing and act convincingly, despite some timing lapses from the men during the Act II matador pantomime.  Emmanuel Joel-Hornak has the measure of this score and conducts a pointed, nuanced reading, particularly in his shaping of the string phrases where he made them colour and inform what was happening on stage but never distract from it.

A super evening, with Scottish Opera back on their best form. Let’s hope it’s the shape of things to come.

Simon Thompson

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