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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata - opera in three acts (1853)
Violetta Valery, a courtesan - Emma Matthews, (soprano); Flora, her friend - Margaret Plummer (mezzo); Annina, her maid, - Sarah Sweeting (soprano); Alfredo Germont, an ardent admirer, - Gianluca Terranova (tenor); Giorgio Germont, his father - Jonathan Summers (baritone); Gastone, Visconte de Letoirieres - Martin Buckingham (tenor); Doctor Grenvil - John Bolton Wood (bass); Baron Douphol, an admirer of Violetta - James Clayton
Opera Australia Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra/Brian Castles-Onion
rec. Handa Opera at Mrs Macquarie's Point, Sydney Harbour, Australia, 2014
Director: Francesca Zambello
Set Designer: Brian Thomson
Costume Designer: Tess Schofield
Television Director: Cameron Kirkpatrick
Sound formats: LPCM Stereo, dts Digital Surround; Picture format: 16:9.
Sung in Italian with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean
ABC CLASSICS DVD 076 2940 [130:00]

La Traviata is the nineteenth of Verdi’s twenty-eight operas and the most popular. Various sources claim that it vies with Magic Flute and Carmen as the most performed opera worldwide. Yet the composer considered it a fiasco at its premiere at La Fenice, Venice, on 6 March 1853. This was a mere six weeks after the first performance of his Il Trovatore which took place at the Apollo, Rome. This clash of compositional and production supervision for Verdi arose because of the delay in completing Il Trovatore following the premature and unexpected death of Salvadore Cammarano, its librettist, before he had completed his work. Consequently Verdi composed parts of both operas contemporaneously; quite a challenge as well as a considerable achievement considering the difference in key and orchestral patina between the two operas.

Verdi wanted his new opera to be set and costumed in the period of its composition thus giving maximum dramatic effect to the lifestyle, morality and mortality of the demi-monde prostitutes. In this desire he was thwarted at the Venice premiere. These days those wishes are hardly relevant for contemporary directors; with producer concept and Regietheater assuming dominance it is often the norm to update the action to the present day, as is the case here. Fortunately, updating need not mean exchanging the opulence of the parties given by Violetta and Flora nor the costumes so that even a traditionalist like me can sit back and listen to Verdi’s divine music and the singing of the soloists, if they are up to Verdi’s demands that is. Add to the impressive costumes in this production a floating stage that is set in the open air at Mrs Macquarie's Point, Sydney Harbour, Australia. The backdrop is quite spectacular. The set designer then adds his pièce de résistance in the form of a chandelier to end all chandeliers. Hoisted by a crane it dominates various scenes. For the rest simpler sets suffice: Violetta’s deathbed in the final act or an elongated settee for example in act two, with mirrors giving added depth.

With appropriate sets and dazzling costumes for the party scenes, the internationally renowned director, Francesca Zambello never puts a foot wrong in revealing the pathos, joys and agonies of the story. She draws full involvement from the soloists, dancers and chorus and clearly knows and follows every nuance of Verdi’s score with many detailed points. It helps when the two major soloists are up to the job, even if not up to the very highest international standard. In her first Violetta, the British-born, Australia-reared soprano, Emma Matthews gives an outstanding sung and acted portrayal. She is first shown on her death bed during the prelude to act one (CH.2) before being stretchered off to reappear alive and vibrant at her party (CH.3) where drinks are served at a bar and we get our first look at that chandelier. Add fireworks during the brindisi (CH.4) and a great spectacle is assured. Matthews is confident in the coloratura that concludes act one, whilst Gianluca Terranova singing Alfredo exhibits a strong tone as he caresses Verdi’s phrases in the duet un di felice (CH.6).

The décor of the the lovers' nest in act two is sparse but effective, consisting of an elongated settee. Matthews is very good dramatically and especially in her sung and acted confrontation with Alfredo’s father (CHs.16-21). Regrettably, Jonathan Summers in the latter role no longer has much tonal beauty left. His grey-toned voice is not always steady and has little variety of colour. Even so, his acting is up to his usual high standard helping to make that vital confrontation convincing. Flora’s party scene in act two (CHs. 28-33) with the Spanish dancing is also convincing whilst the drama of Alfredo throwing his winnings at Violetta is suitably dramatic in its staging - harrowing stuff. Throughout that dramatic scene, as elsewhere, the orchestral supporting colour is highly effective under Brian Castles-Onion’s idiomatic baton. His sensitivity is particularly evident in the ethereal spirituality he draws from the orchestra in the prelude to act three (CH.36). Elsewhere he makes small traditional cuts - for example, to the cabalettas.

In act three Emma Matthews shows her combined acting and sung skills as she lies pale and drawn in the centrally placed bed with the chandelier above; her high life and ebbing life juxtaposed. She reads the letter telling her of Alfredo’s return with the required tonal agony of expression (CH.38). After a very tasteful rendition of the duet, Parigio, a cara (CH.41), in which Gianluca Terranova exhibits a nicely placed head voice, Matthews’ Violetta dies most convincingly as the chandelier turns purple.

There is a little extra non-Verdian music in the Intermezzo as the audience are seen taking supper. This concludes as boats bring the guests to Flora’s party in masks and tuxedos, a nice touch (CH.27). Along with the dancers, the supporting soloists and chorus are never less than acceptable.

Robert J Farr



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