Opera North (La Traviata)
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
November 8 2022 (and at The Lowry, Salford Quays, Nov 15 – 17)
Review: William Ruff
With La Traviata Opera North presents a music drama that thrills, delights and moves to tears
Those with fingers on the operatic pulse tell us that Verdi’s La Traviata is currently the world’s favourite opera, performed more often and in more countries than any other. This would have surprised its composer for whom the first performance in 1853 was a disaster. The audience booed and, despite the story being about a young heroine who dies of TB, couldn’t resist laughing. In the mid-19th century the tale of Violetta Valéry (who provides ‘personal services’ for her upper-class admirers) was too near the knuckle. Verdi was no stranger to the holier-than-thou taking the moral high ground rather than looking at themselves in the mirror. He blamed his singers as well as his audience, made some changes and waited for the inevitable to happen: La Traviata conquered the world.
Opera North’s latest version of it is very fine. First impressions are vital, of course, and in the first few seconds the audience’s eyes are confronted with huge projected eyes alerting us not only to how voyeuristic the story is but how the heroine will be seen and judged. The opening stage images are arresting: luxury, debauchery, the rich using their money to indulge and exploit. The Chorus not only sings impressively and with huge energy but, as always with this company, their acting is vivid and detailed. And this level of precision is matched by the company’s orchestra under the perceptive, incisive direction of Jonathan Webb.
In terms of memorable tunes La Traviata takes some beating. The fact that the music is so well-known means that audience’s expectations are high. Nico Darmanin played Alfredo, Violetta’s lover, a role which takes him from the high spirits of his opening drinking-song to Violetta’s unbearable death-bed scene at the end. He sings beautifully throughout: perhaps a little stiffly at first but he certainly warms up rapidly, his anguish intensifying the audience response at the end. Damiano Salerno played his father who initially wants his son’s relationship with this ‘fallen women’ to end. He has the rich, dark voice needed for this tricky role as well as impressive stage presence.
Unsurprisingly, it is the character of Violetta that holds the stage from first to last. Verdi wrote for her some of his loveliest music: glittering and joyful at first, then increasingly heart-wrenching. Alison Langer not only has a voice that can manage sparkle and anguish in equal measure but physically she can encompass a huge range of emotion. She is utterly convincing in her final scene. When the doctor says she had only minutes to live, the audience believes it, her powerful music becoming her last desperate act of defiance against a cruel fate.
In an opera so dominated by three main roles it is important that minor roles are not skimped or swamped. Director Alessandro Taveli ensures that all the smaller parts are essential elements in the story-telling. And it is this careful, imaginative integration of key ingredients that makes this production so successful. Here everything – singing, acting, fine orchestral playing, sets, costumes, makeup – is at the service of a music drama which still has the power to thrill, delight and move to tears.
OPERA NORTH (LA TRAVIATA)
Amy J Payne
THE CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA OF OPERA NORTH
SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER