‘Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity’ Act I, Scene II, Hamlet
One of Verdi’s most stunning opera’s depicting misplaced love and duty of the female, WNO’s La Traviata is exquisite, as the Cardiff-based company draw out the tragedy of the fate that befalls the courtesan Violetta with grandeur and considered sensitivity.
Set in 19th century Paris, the production impeccably captures the bloating hedonism that consumes, and, later, rejects Violetta. In most productions of La Traviata, the ubiquity of bloody handkerchiefs is usually deemed enough to confirm that Violetta conceals a greater fragility, and is nearing her end. However, designer Tanya McCallin must be commended for more inventive ways of suggesting that death is just around the corner; when Violetta cavorts with the Parisians in the first scene, at the back of the stage through misted windows, the dancing guests seem spectral and otherworldly. The transience of Violetta’s time at the peak of high society is reflected with the dramatic fall of the lavish drapes, a lovely, if perhaps clichéd, visual evocation of Violetta’s collapse.
Violetta is never able to escape the threat of death and the feverish allure of the social scene, even when she elopes with Alfredo to his country estate. The flowering drapes which drip down from the ceiling, suggestive of Violetta’s sense of relief far from the strains of Paris, are constantly fringed with the dark curtains employed during the opening party scene. The sense of suffocation pervades the production as the stage is darkened with heavy fabric, evocative of funeral drapes. In fact, we are never allowed to forget the inevitability of Violetta’s death as the whole stage floor has been crafted into a giant gravestone with Violetta’s name inscribed on its surface, giving the production even more of a searing sense of momentum towards her end. This clever set design makes her fall even more tragic as she loves, dances, and falls all on top of an emblem of her death.
Delivered with a perfect balance of nuance and dynamism, Anush Hovhannisyan conquers the challenge of Violetta’s score, performing with such vehemence that she easily compels the audience for the entirety of the three acts. Alfredo, played by Kang Wang, is unfortunately rather unconvincing as her lover. His acting is fairly trite; falling victim to awkward stagecraft, his performance is unengaging – albeit it vocally strong. Although his attempt at ardency deserves credit, he is also a little gauche, and his love for Violetta is therefore unbelievable. The scene between Violetta and Germont, Alfredo’s father, however, is impossibly moving - Roland Wood is full of authority and stage presence as he demands that Violetta release Alfredo from her bewitchment, but he perhaps has a tendency to rasp, and his performance is therefore a little dry voiced. Nevertheless, the scene is impressive, particularly Violetta’s expression of love for Alfredo in the face of Germont – her defiance palpable, but her heartbreak even more so.
The orchestra – conducted by James Southall – are to whom the production owes its success. They are simply beautiful; the first few chords which break perfectly are stunning. Their vibrancy compliments the intensity and power of the company, and particularly for the preludes to the first and last acts, they deliver the richness of Verdi’s opera wonderfully.
The production wasn’t as ambitious as others have been – I particularly enjoyed the surrealism of Willy Decker’s La Traviata, in which a giant clock poised at the back of the stage kept Violetta’s impending death chillingly in the forefront of the audience’s consciousness. However, praise must be given to WNO for keeping to tradition, for simply telling such a crushing story without any distracting added extras. For allowing Verdi’s wonderful score to envelop the audience, rather than confronting them with imposing modernist visuals, WNO’s La Traviata is testament to the skill of company, particularly director David McVicar, who put on a production for those who simply love opera.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor