La Travi­ata

Giuseppe Verdi. Emma Matthews, Gian­luca Ter­ra­nova Opera Aus­tralia ★★★★★

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Gra­ham Strahle

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.

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