Giuseppe Verdi. Emma Matthews, Gianluca Terranova Opera Australia ★★★★★
IT seemed like folly when Opera Australia decided to perform La Traviata outdoors on a floating platform in Sydney Harbour last year. With one of the world’s great opera houses sitting forlornly in the background, an $11.5 million version of Verdi’s masterpiece was staged at the water’s edge, complete with fireworks.
Was this populism gone mad? Lyndon Terracini, OA’s artistic director, defended the decision by talking about the need to engage wider audiences, and he tried to convince sceptics that radio mics, needed to make the singers audible, would not hurt the sound.
Actually, it turned out to be a triumph. Emma Matthews turned in one of her best performances in the role of Violetta, the technology all worked fine, and even opera purists praised it. OA’s La Traviata looks even better on DVD.
Even without the salt air and lapping waves, the filmed version has a palpably live quality that re-creates the frisson of staging a traditional opera in this most unlikely setting. La Traviata’s story of a high society drowning in its own excess has a particular resonance in a city renowned the world over for throwing lavish parties. To begin with, Matthews’s Violetta is a champagne-sipping socialite who knows little other than how to grab men’s attention. The production gets off to a tremendous start, with wine flowing and dresses twirling, as Violetta sets eyes on her dream man, Alfredo, sung by Gianluca Terranova, who strides up and down a champagne table singing the brindisi (drinking song), Drink from the Joyful Cup. Then there erupts a spectacular burst of fireworks — so Sydney, and what a way to start La Traviata.
Another hit moment is the gypsy and matador dancing in the second act. The choreography here is mesmerisingly colourful. But this is no superficial La Traviata. By the end, through brilliant performances from Matthews, Violetta shows herself to be a woman of deep nobility, despite all the humiliation and ruin she experiences.
Director Francesca Zambello has done wonders in the level of acting detail she draws out from all the cast. She gives the opera a painful believability, as though society’s frivolity is inevitably perched on the edge of disaster. Smart, bright 1950s costumes enliven a fairly featureless set, whose only boast is a gargantuan chandelier that is hoisted inelegantly up and down by crane.
The singing, though, is magnificent all through. Matthews is outstanding in her control, expressive range and pinpoint accuracy up high. Indeed, she reminds one of the great Joan Sutherland. Terranova is a skilfully experienced Alfredo. As a lyric tenor he is ideal for the role, although in his acting he is a shade less convincing. Jonathan Summers carries the part of Alfredo’s father with fine authority and vocal presence. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under conductor Brian CastlesOnion, sounds pint-sized but has lovely spark and lift.