Opera + Classical Music Reviews

La traviata: Opera North keeps it simple with focus on singing

29 September 2022

Bacilli under the microscope? Blood on the pillow? ‘Strong on detail’ does not quite cover it.

La traviata

La traviata at Opera North (Photo: Richard H Smith)

There’s always an anticipatory buzz at the first night of any season, and this one was no exception, even though the production was not new. In the hands of its original director, Alessandro Talevi, it nevertheless felt fresh and original, if only because, as one audience member put it, it had “none of that modern dress stuff” opting rather for careful management of singers and some telling detail.  

The general concept seemed to be that Violetta is observed from every angle, whether under the microscope or having an audience at her deathbed, and it did work up to a point. All the sets are simple; Madeleine Boyd’s furnishings resembled what you might see at a girls’ school’s annual drama production, especially in the second act – a steamer chair from the Head of Maths, a wicker armchair and occasional table from the Lab Assistant – but they work as well as anything more lavish, especially when bathed in the glowing lighting provided by Matthew Haskins.

This simplicity enables concentration on the singers, which was mostly well rewarded. Alison Langer has a big, well focussed soprano which she uses with refinement; she’s not fazed by the demanding coloratura and she responds sensitively to the more tender moments. Nico Darmanin, making his Opera North debut, was a sensational Ramiro in last year’s Grange Festival’s Cenerentola, but on this occasion he seemed less comfortable, taking time to get into his stride. He grew in confidence as the evening progressed, revealing an ardent tenor capable of rounding out Verdi’s ample phrases.

Damiano Salerno was a stolid Giorgio Germont, his baritone sometimes sounding a little stretched but always musical and sympathetic. Amy J Payne made much of the small role of Annina, and although Victoria Sharp was a touch underpowered vocally as Flora, her characterization was sharp. There were very strong cameos from the various ‘hangers-on’, with particularly vivid interpretations from Gavan Ring’s Vicomte and James Cleverton’s Baron.

“This simplicity enables concentration on the singers, which was mostly well rewarded”

La traviata

Alison Langer & Nico Darmanin (Photo: Richard H Smith)

The Chorus was in fine form, whether impersonating louche courtesans or well dressed salonistes, and Jonathan Webb was in full command of the orchestra, which, after a slightly shaky start, gave a searing account of the score. It’s always debatable as to whether or not there should be stage action and / or video during the overture; some of us would prefer not, but if you’re going to opt for it then a human eye observing tissue as a background, with gently gyrating ladies centre stage, at least has the merit of pointing up two of the elements of the plot.

The director’s concentration on character provides the inspiration for the finely staged death scene, with each individual in his or her own private dimension of grief. ‘Gran dio, morir si giovane’ began as a cry of rage rather than a sigh of regret, and those moved by the demise of operatic characters will have been very satisfied by this interpretation. The presence of evening dress clad onlookers in the background had a strong air of ‘Finita la Commedia’ about it, and made the same kind of impression as the cookie munching ‘stage audience’ in Covent Garden’s Fidelio; that is to say, some found it an unnecessary distraction, others were willing to see it as a symbol of how the privileged view the oppressed.

The production is double cast, with Máire Flavin, Oliver Johnston and Stephen Gadd taking on the roles of Violetta, Alfredo and Giorgio Germont respectively, and after the run in Leeds it will be on tour to Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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