Trills and Thrills at Opera Qld’s La Traviata


la traviatia opera qld
Image by Jade Ferguson

This is a musically thrilling La Traviata. Congratulations to Opera Queensland for this gripping fusion of singing, playing, and most crucially, conducting.

Maestro Dane Lam showed a keen flair for this classic by Giuseppe Verdi, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra responded with passion. Whether savouring the moment or pressing fatefully on, it was a pleasure to be in their expert hands.

Lam understands how Verdi’s repeating musical patterns need to be caressed. They can so easily turn mechanical – too tumty-tumty in the faster passages or an interminable treadmill in the slower ones. This never happened. The wrenching last act, as the heroine dies of tuberculosis, seemed cruelly brief. And how often in opera do you feel someone dies too soon?

The story of a high-class hooker

La Traviata was a breakthrough in 1853, and not just for Verdi. Never before had an opera focussed so fully on a person’s inner life. The choice of story was a breakthrough too. It concerns the kind of woman you weren’t supposed to know about — Violetta, a high-class hooker kept in lavish style by a rich man. Until he tires of her and she has to find another rich man.

But Violetta is becoming terminally ill. At the same time, she finds the first real love she’s ever known. But it’s soon torn away. The young man’s father hunts Violetta out. Her scandalous affair is destroying the Germont family, he tells her. The only way to save it, and do right by her lover, is to give him up. So she does and has to face her journey to death not only alone but hated by the person most dear to her.

As Violetta, Lorina Gore was, ultimately, superb. A lovely presence on stage, her singing was never less than competent. She met the role’s huge demands for agility, power, and above all, endurance. Gore’s first two acts, however, suffered from a harsh attack on the uppermost notes. But whenever she warmed her sound she could melt you. The duet as she first encountered the lovestruck Alfredo gave me my first spine-tingle of the night.

Heartfelt, golden tone

And what an Alfredo. The heartfelt, golden tone pouring out of Kang Wang was enough to explain Violetta’s adoring him. He was also the picture of puppy appeal, sporting clear signs he’s been hitting the gym.

As his father, Germont, José Carbó was an effective foil for the lovers. He offered plenty of vocal strength and authority, only lacking some smoothness in his longer phrases. Smaller parts were excellently taken by local veterans such as Shaun Brown, Hayley Sugars, Jason Barry-Smith and Conal Coad.

I only wish the visual drama consistently matched what we heard. The production is certainly handsome. Clean white walls offset gorgeous gowns and decor. But for me, it was too relentlessly pretty, like a lifestyle magazine doing a Victorian tribute issue. This worked against the sombre currents running through Verdi’s music. The set also featured an enclosed rectangle that interfered with the acoustics, especially of female voices. Often when Violetta changed the angle of her head, her volume distractingly changed with it.

But most disappointing was the way the staging drew attention to itself rather than pull you into the world of the characters. Imagined figures frequently entered, with no change of lighting to keep the focus on the person singing. Characters seemed to cross the stage more to stretch their legs than for any dramatic reason.

Above all, there was little regard for what Verdi’s music was actually expressing. The staging of the prelude was emblematic. Just as Violetta’s great love theme began, a bit of comic business drew a titter from the audience. This was bad enough. But it also set them up to laugh moments later when a seriously ill Violetta collapsed.

Most heart-rending I’ve ever heard live

Fortunately, however, opera’s primary joy is the connection between singer and audience. This we got in spades. Opera Queensland’s chorus was in rousing voice, and the sheer excitement of their sound was enough to carry the party scenes. When the leads were allowed simply to feel their parts they could move you to tears.

The last act was the most heart-rending I’ve ever heard live. Lorina Gore became one with Verdi’s score as the strings ushered in death, eerily whistling like radio interference. I wept for Violetta and her tragedy, even though I knew she was only an artistic creation. This is what we go to opera for.

Opera Queensland presents La Traviata at the Lyric Theatre until July 23.

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