La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House

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Last night I fulfilled a longstanding ambition of mine, to see an opera at the Sydney Opera House. It wasn’t that easy to get tickets, but last night I managed to see Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

First a couple of comments about the Sydney Opera House. It is of course a splendid building but rather complicated inside, with surprising staircases and bizarre balconies. At dinner on Thursday, one of the locals here told me it is like a “1960s vision of The Future”, which is very apt. One of the nice things is that you can take your drink outside to get a breath of fresh air and a view of the harbour, which is very nice in the dark with all the lights from the boats and surrounding houses. The Joan Sutherland Theatre – where the operas are staged – is very nice. I have to say, though, that it’s a bit smaller than I’d anticipated. The seating capacity is just over 1500, while the Wales Millennium Centre – where Welsh National Opera perform – can seat 2500 people.

I took this picture from the Harbour Ferry

Sydney Opera House from the Harbour Ferry

The Joan Sutherland Theatre is actually in the slightly smaller edifice to the left; the other side is a Concert Hall. Anyway, the place has a nice ambience and very friendly staff. They even give out free programmes!

And so to the performance. The staging in this production is relatively simple, with the opulence of the Paris settings achieved by costumes and lighting rather than by scenery. In Act II Scene 1, when Violetta and Alfredo are in the country, the back of the set is opened out to give a view of gardens and a tree. This device returns to touching effect at the end; see below. Costumes and design are pretty much 19th Century, with some (deliberate) anachronisms in dress style for humorous effect.

The Opera is in three acts, lasting about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one interval. When I heard there was only one wine break interval I wondered how they would manage it without making the performance a bit lop-sided. In fact the break came between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act II, with the first scene performed as a continuation of Act 1 and Act III following directly from Scene 2. It worked well, with changes of costume and scenery achieved onstage by the cast in view of the audience.

This production has been running since December 2023 but the principals changed earlier this month (February). We saw Sophie Salvesani as Violetta, Tomas Dalton as Alfredo Germont, and Luke Gabbedy as Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s Father); all of them Australian born and bred. The performance was sung in Italian.

La Traviata is one of the most enduringly popular of all operas – and is one of the most frequently performed. It’s quite curious that its first performance in Venice was a complete disaster and it took several revisions before it became established as part of the operatic repertoire. A production like the one we saw last night, however, makes it abundantly clear why it is such an evergreen classic. Act I in particular is just one memorable tune after another.

The opera is based on the novel La Dame Aux Camélias which later became a play with the same name. It tells the story of Violetta, a glamorous courtesan and flamboyant darling of the Paris party scene. She meets a young chap called Alfredo at a spectacular do in her house in Act I and he tells her he’s completely in love with her. She laughs him off and he departs crestfallen. When the party’s over and  he’s gone, though, she finds herself thinking about him. The trouble with Violetta is that she is already seriously ill with consumption (tuberculosis) at the start. She knows that she is doomed to die and is torn between her desire to be free and her growing love for Alfredo.

Cut to Act II, Scene I, a few months later. Violetta and Alfredo are shacked up in a love nest away from Paris. While Alfredo is away paying off some of Violetta’s bills, Alfredo’s father Giorgio turns up and tries to convince Violetta to abandon her relationship with his son because its scandalous nature threatens their family’s prospects, particular his daughter’s (Alfredo’s sisters) plans to get married. Violetta eventually agrees to do a runner. Alfredo returns and meets his father who tries to convince him to return to his family in Provence. Alfredo is distraught to hear of Violetta’s departure, refuses to go with his father, and vows to find Violetta again.

Scene 2 is back in Paris, at the house of a lady called Flora. There’s a lot of singing and dancing and general riotousness.Alfredo turns up, slightly the worse for drink and proceeds to gamble (winning a huge amout of money). Violetta turns up and Alfredo insults her by throwing his winnings at her. He’s then overcome by remorse but the Baron Douphol, a wealthy friend of Violetta, is outraged and challenges Alfredo to a duel.

Act III is set a few months later in Violetta’s bedroom where she’s clearly dying. Alfredo has run off after wounding the Baron in a duel. The doctor gives Violetta just a few hours to live. Alfredo returns. The lovers forgive each other and embrace. Violetta dies.

I thought Sophie Salvesani was a very convincing and sympathetic Violetta. She has a very nice, fluid voice and engaging stage presence. Violetta is a demanding role- there are several tricky coloratura passages to cope with – but her character is quite complicated too. Although we know she’s ill right from the start she’s not by any means a passive victim. She’s a courtesan who has clearly put it about a bit, but she’s also got a strong moral sense. She’s vulnerable, but also at times very strong.

All the cast sang very well, actually. I particularly liked the baritone of Luke Gabbedy (though even with his make up he looked too young to be Alfredo’s Daddy).

The  look of the opera – staging, lighting and costumes – also worked very well. The Paris parties were riots of colour and movement with just as much debauchery as desired. The start of Act III finds the same set as Act I, bare apart from a Chaise Longue, bathed in a ghostly greenish light. A particularly moving touch was right at the end when Violetta is dying. Here last lines (and the last of the Opera) are:

È strano!
Cessarono gli spasimi del dolore.
In me rinasce – m’agita insolito vigor!
Ah! ma io ritorno a viver!
Oh gioia!
(Ricade sul canapè.)

How strange!
The spasms of pain have ceased:
A strange vigour has brought me to life!
Ah! I shall live –
Oh, joy!
(She falls down, senseless, upon the sofa.)

Most productions I have seen follow these directions but, in this one, before delivering these lines, Violetta stands up, while the other members of the cast present on stage – Alfredo, Giorgio, the maid Annina, and the Doctor – freeze as she sings the lines in full voice. The back of the set lifts up and shows the tree we saw in Act II and Violetta walks out into the sunshine while a double takes the place of the lifeless Violetta on the sofa. The implication is that she is already dead when she sings these last lines. It’s a powerful device, and puts quite a different perspective on the ending.

Anyway, congratulations to Opera Australia on an excellent production which I enjoyed greatly.

P.S. I’ll be going again to the Sydney Opera House next week, to see their Magic Flute.

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