(Photo: Keith Saunders)
Sarah Giles’s production of “La traviata,” currently playing at Sydney Opera House, comes across as a very intelligent piece of theater. Already seen at Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and West Australian Opera, this production opened Opera Australia’s 2024 summer season on January 2.
Much of its effectiveness was achieved through devices that increased our insight into the “hinterland” of the surface-plot. These included physical enactment of backstory or imagined happenings, a less-than-ornate but functional set by Charles Davis, compared with Elijah Moshinsky’s “Belle Epoque” production last seen here in 2022, telling blocking, and Giles’s own particular style of surtittling.
One particularly smart move was the delay of the set change to “Violetta’s home outside Paris” for Act two, after Violetta and Alfredo have begun their affair. How were we to know that this is a change of scene? Alfredo, sung by Chinese-Australian tenor, Kang Wang, tells us “It’s been three months…” and then the walls move and the seasons change to Fall as he sings of his “youthful ardor,” “De’ miei bollenti spiriti.” It was more effective, really, than something done with the curtain down. And by the way, the wallpaper of Violetta’s room in Act one depicted a rural scene, perhaps setting up a psychological correspondence with her Act two rural retreat.
In her note in the program booklet, director Giles spoke of the three versions of this tale – Dumas the Younger’s original 1848 novella, his 1852 stage adaptation and then Verdi and Piave’s operatic re-telling – and how in all three we missed the perspective of the courtesan, the “traviata.” But Giles based her interpretation on her discovery of a first-hand account of the life of a 19th century courtesan, Mogador, and that informed much of this production.
“’La traviata’ has so much to say to us about our current gender politics,” says Giles at the end of her essay. How much this production said about “gender politics” could be debated, but it certainly asked us to look more unsentimentally and perhaps even forensically at a familiar piece of repertoire. British/Australian soprano Samantha Clarke’s determinedly robust portrayal of Violetta in the earlier parts of the opera, gave us someone stronger than the doomed victim framed harshly by mid-19th century mores, abounding at the time of the work’s 1853 creation. The production found clever ways to provide social insight, even if the apparent under-playing of the title character’s tuberculosis might have lessened the opera’s downward trajectory into a fated doom and heart-rending poignancy. It seemed to mitigate any message of deserved punishment in the 19th century acceptance of the “inevitability” of a “traviata’s” death.
As an example of insight provided by stage movement: a slow-motion depiction of Violetta’s Act one party during the orchestral prelude, usually played before the curtain, provided an almost eerie accompaniment to the events in a side-room walled off from the party. There, on her bed, Violetta cleaned herself up while her “patron” – should we call him a sugar-daddy? – the sated Baron, sung by bass Richard Anderson, slept. This is not overt in Piave’s text, but clearly a reading which the text will bear and arguably a part of the work’s “deep structure.” The oom-pah music of Scene one as Violetta joined the party – Verdi’s ironic segue after the poignant strings of his prelude – thus came into greater focus. Violetta coughed on entering the festivities, so we knew all was not well. This was a small hint of where this piece was going.
She also retired to another room, again walled off from the main acting area, for another bout of coughing later.
Giles’s surtitling was part of the set, projected as if onto the cornices of rooms in various houses where the action takes place – Violetta’s townhouse where she meets the lovesick Alfredo and the house in the country that she and Alfredo flee to after commencing this, perhaps her last, shot at true love. Or, Flora’s place back in Paris where she resumes her partying after being warned off the relationship by Alfredo’s father, Germont, sung by New Zealand baritone Phillip Rhodes.
Each character’s lines would display in one of several fields appearing over the relevant characters like a speech bubble. This was so effective in the Act three finale where, normally the voices of Violetta’s servant, Annina and physician, Dr Grenvil (he who says, “She has only hours”) might be subsumed into the grief of the final ensemble as Violetta lies dying. But here, trained by the individualizing surtitles to discern the supporting characters far-more-than-usually as individuals one gained fuller understanding of the tragedy by seeing Petah Cavallaro and Shane Lowrencev, respectively, join the voices of Alfredo, Germont and Violetta.
It might be thought that this was a production of a straight play, so cleverly did it focus our attention on issues. What about the music?
Mention has been made of Samantha Clarke’s “determinedly robust” portrayal in the earlier parts of the production. Julian Budden makes the point in his book on Verdi’s operas that Violetta’s coloratura serves a dramatic meaning and you could hear this in Clarke’s interpretation of Violetta’s big Act one scene, “E strano.” Here were roulades hinting that Violetta was tempted to a serious love by Alfredo’s recent protestations at the Act one party, whereas there was a convincing, maybe even overblown, sense of determination in her ornamental lines when she finally decided “Sempre libera” that she would stick with a life of invulnerable heedlessness…for now.
But Violetta is vulnerable and she succumbs to pressure from Alfredo’s father, Germont, to give up the affair when he comes to her in the second act to persuade her to abandon Alfredo out of respect for the Germonts’ middle class morality, and specifically to safeguard the Germont daughter’s marriage prospects. “Dite alla giovine…” “Tell your daughter that I will sacrifice the one good thing I have in my life,” sings Violetta. This is some of Verdi’s most touching music and Clarke’s poignant delivery revealed that this may be Violetta’s greatest defeat, at the hands of middle-class convention, as much as consumption.
As Germont senior, there was an early middle-age authority about Phillip Rhodes’ voice that made him perfect casting for the role of a 40-something father, and his delivery of the Act two air, “Di Provenza al mar,” was one of the production’s purely musical highlights. It should be noted how musically satisfying Chinese-Australian tenor Kang Wang was as Alfredo. This offered some of the few occasions when one might be rewarded for closing their eyes and relishing the sound – the vocal nuances of say the lovelorn emphasis on “amor ch’è palpito” in his opening aria, “Un dì felice…”
The big Act two scene between Violetta and Germont is a notoriously difficult scene to make convincing. Germont must be persuaded by Violetta’s dignity to gradually shed his conventional concern for middle-class probity and empathize with her emotional predicament – indeed become a kind of ally or friend. Perhaps the problem lies in the first place in Illica’s need to cut Dumas’s play and Verdi’s need to find musical moments, so it’s arguably a challenge to flow through these transitions convincingly. Perhaps Rhodes came across as too peremptory from the outset. Although that may have been an impression caused by the fact that the production had him immediately getting around in shirt-sleeves upon entering Violetta’s house, which in turn may have been intended to show his high-handed assumption of superiority in a woman’s domain. The darkness of tone with which Rhodes delivered the warning that one day his son’s “lust will fade” was extremely pungent and insulting. And yet as Violetta had started coughing again, Germont had dropped to his knee to persuade her she’s still young and has time to find another love. Rhodes was particularly affecting.
Perhaps fitting for a production which so highlighted the dramatic priorities of this work, the Opera Australia Chorus looked particularly engaged during their party scenes and notably intent on the Spanish dance party entertainment in Act two Scene two.
In Jessica Cottis, making her Opera Australia debut as conductor, Sarah Giles had an ideal, sympathetic collaborator. Everything coming out of the pit was well-judged and there was a particularly nice winding-down of tempo at the end of Alfredo’s Act two “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” as he admits he pays no attention to the world and, after all, he and Violetta are now in their country retreat far from the parties.
Again, there was a subtle theatrical transition between Act two Scene two and Act three. Annina helped Violetta undress. At one point Petah Cavallaro as Annina even conveyed the weight of these dresses 19th century women had to wear. Violetta then removed her make-up, or so it seemed. Actually, she was dabbing on a deathly pallor for the last scene.
Perhaps most impressive of the physical enactments, Violetta actually left her body at the end of the work when she joyfully sees herself surviving: “Ah! ma io ritorno a viver!”, by which is meant that Samantha Clarke got up and moved downstage while a body-double took the dead Violetta’s place on the settee. This production had its own means of conveying life-cut-short poignancy.
It may be stretching things to say that this production might help one understand “La traviata” as part of the continuum of socially realistic 19th century drama that culminated in Ibsen or Strindberg. But note “The Times” music critic, James William Davison, writing back in 1856, said “La traviata” could be regarded as a play set to music. Verdi would probably have been chuffed. Heightened dramatic integrity was one of his aims and this is one of the reasons he wanted the piece played in contemporary dress. As mentioned at the outset, this production “comes across as a very intelligent piece of theater.”