Cher Public

The little people

As an opera, La Traviata is defined by its characters. There isn’t necessarily a cookie-cutter mold when or how the action needs to take place, but you need strong central characters in this piece if you want a successful production. This doesn’t mean that every Violetta all over the world has to be done the same way, but it does mean that Violetta has to be an important and compelling presence, as does Alfredo and his father.

In the 2012 production of La Traviata by Opera Australia directed by Francesca Zambello, characters are clearly defined and multifaceted. Too bad these characters aren’t the main ones.

In this production, performed on a stage on Sydney Harbor with the Sydney Opera House serving as a backdrop; Zambello totally misses the mark in terms of reinventing or adding new layers of understanding to the three main characters. However, we do get matadors in pink sequins, gypsies in drag, and a Gaston who embodies an eighteenth century car salesman.

Zambello makes a habit of overusing small, and frankly, weak characters who contribute little to the story as a whole. Flora is sung with a sweet voice by Margaret Plummer. Now, in most productions, Flora comes on and off, unobtrusively comforting Violetta when she needs it. In this production, Flora is this domineering energy, challenging Violetta for air time on the stage, and creating unnecessary sexual tension in every scene she is in.

I’m not kidding you. It’s ridiculous. What does this production gain with Flora dragging a riding crop across other people’s lips and nearly kissing some random woman who walks past her at the party? How does this give us a new level of understanding about her friendship with Violetta? Even if this production totally changed her sexual orientation, it would make more sense and be more interesting, but this is a minor character, and to make her more important than she needs to be does not make sense.

Gaston, sung pleasantly but inconsistently by Martin Buckingham is also made more important than he needs to be. With all his “used car salesman” gestures and his “ushering” of the crowd to leave so Violetta and Alfredo can get together (In fangirl speak, this is known as “shipping”) is just unnecessary and frustrating.

Also blown out of proportion is Annina, who is hinted as Violetta’s “soul” at one point. However, Sarah Sweeting is very good with her emotion-filled mezzo.

Emma Matthews is definitely the most satisfying of the three leads as Violetta. Her tonally beautiful soprano is charming and expressive and evocative of a more refined and sumptuous Angela Gheorghiu. However, the presence of microphones was so prevalent in this production that it’s hard to tell to what degree her sound was mixed. She opts for high notes all the time and she has a solid hold of her expansive upper register, sending out a long, crowd-pleasing high E-flat.

The bland conducting by Brian Castles-Onion sometimes tripped her up, but that is understandable because she couldn’t see him. (The orchestra was not shown at all in the video, which I felt like was a big loss). Her biggest shortcoming however, was her crazy diction and the odd “grunt” she lets out before a high note. Her acting is also very good, butthis could also be an issue with the camera) she consistently has her back to the audience and the DVD watcher. This small detail drove me crazy, as it exposed all of the crazy wiring for the microphones on her back.

Another aspect of Zambello’s production that really miffed me was Violetta in the second act. Instead of a sad and sentimental woman trying to hold on to the last fraying fibers of love or even a more manic woman, she was “Crazy PMS Violetta” with violent mood swings. One minute she’s indignant, then terrified, then angry, then puppylike. It’s fine if you want to make Violetta this way, but this does not show us who she really is deep down as a person.

As Alfredo, Gianluca Terranova pushed and shoved his way through this piece. His voice just could not handle the high notes and he sounded strained and hoarse, which is a shame because most times his voice is very pleasant to listen to. His “Brindisi” was nicely executed as was the final scene with Violetta. He might work better in roles like Dick Johnson in Fanciulla for example, but Alfredo does not fit his ardent voice.

Terranova is a good actor, but Zambello made him do the stupidest things. During “Di Provenza il mar,” he was throwing a temper tantrum on the sofa. If anything, it made me like his character less and I found it annoying.

As his father, Germont père, Jonathan Summers was pleasant but forgettable, lacking the passion and virtuosity inherent in so many Verdi baritone roles. “Di Provenza” was very well-sung. He was probably the best actor of the bunch, and his “Di sprezzo degno” was powerful and chilling.

The sets, designed by Brian Thompson do little for the production. The stage floor is supposed to reflect a “mirror” but I didn’t see it. The stage is dominated by a huge chandelier covered with crystals. I believe in productions where everything on stage is 100% necessary to the drama. This chandelier is not necessary at all. It just went up and down, and at the end of Act 1, Violetta rode up in it during the final bars of “Sempre libera,” and was lowered each time Violetta was in bed.

Now I would understand if the chandelier was illuminated, and the lights went off one by one until the end of the opera or something like that, but there was none of that.  Violetta sells her horses and carriages? Maybe her chandelier should go first.

Also, every piece of furniture was gold or silver, which for some reason drove me crazy.

Tess Schofield’s costumes are visually appealing and are really the only indicator that this production was updated. The costumes for soloist women are very helpful in identifying them, but the men’s suits blend into the crowd easier which leads to confusion.

John Rayment’s blah lighting design added little to the show, but the choreography by Stephen Baynes was inventive and interesting to watch. The Australian Opera Chorus, Ballet, and Orchestra were all in top form.

Sydney Harbor really does provide a spectacular backdrop to the opera, and the fireworks after the Brindisi, no matter how much I think they should have changed the time they started at, were also grand and spectacular.

The DVD comes with extra features like an interview with the director, costume designer, and a making-of-the-chandelier documentary amongst other things. Included is a booklet with pictures and notes from the director. The DVD contains subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Italian. It is region free and the audio is LCPM Stereo and dts Surround Sound. The video quality is very good but sometimes shots are taken from weird angles.

This disappointing DVD looked like something really special. Deep down, I really wanted to like this performance, but as a production of La Traviata, this didn’t cut it.

  • Weird question: my mother saw a theatercast of this Traviata and claims that “Amami, Alfredo” was omitted.

    Because she is 91, I consider it a whole lot more likely that she slept through that bit than that they cut it! Did they?!

  • LJ

    As a Sydneysider I was tossing up whether to go to this. It was definitely advertised ad nauseoum as an “OPERA EVENT”/ Bregenz in SYDNEY! (OH LOOK WE HAVE A CHANDALIER) for people who don’t really go to the opera much or listen to opera at all. Maybe it’s a bit of a cash incentive for Opera Australia but I’m kinda glad I didn’t go now.

    I caught some clips on youtube later. Most of it looked and sounded lacklustre. Opera in this country is seriously overpriced for it’s quality, and events such as this don’t help. They just keep perpetuating the stereotype that opera is a one-off REALLY REALLY SPECIAL EVENT. blah!

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    One thing I always tell students is that any work, no matter how abhorrent, is still doing something. I do wish the reviewer had explained Zambello’s concept, given us a sense of what was actually being criticized before going in so hard. I love a polemicist as much as the next queen, but I didn’t know what was being pummeled to pieces. Keep at the writing!

    • manou

      As a polemicist invites controversy, I would say that the fledgeling OperaTeen has done pretty well here.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        Controversy is different than confusion. Remember, shade came from reading, reading came first. And sadly, Operateen has not yet put on her reading glasses. If I don’t know what’s being extra extra read all about it, then I can’t possible join in with my own effete knife.

        • armerjacquino

          Confusion is the word. Can anyone translate this post?

    • ianw2

      I don’t think there was a konzept beyond the ‘1950s-ish’ and ‘where shall we put the fireworks?’.

    • kennedet

      I did not see this production therefore I will not add any comments.

      However, I did see her Aida at Glimmerglass this past summer and it was the most bizarre concept I’ve ever seen on stage of any opera. It went from waterboarding of Radames in the “Trial Scene” to injections with syringes in the “Tomb Scene”. Add to that Amneris singing inside of a jeep and soldiers wearing fashionable Timberland combat boots. Zambello’s explanation at the Q & A was meaningless to me because we were trying to get over this quagmire staging. Thank God for the fine singers in that production. Maybe this teen had a difficult time realizing a concept when she viewed the production. I know i did.

  • La Valkyrietta

    Maybe Zambello is telling us that Tolstoy was inspired by Violetta for Anna Karenina -Flora as Betsy?- and used a train end so as to cover the fact, no Parigi duet possible in that sudden death. Any hint in this production that the soprano is on opium on the second act? You can read all sorts of things in these productions. The Guardian called it an event. The chandelier is certainly large, though not as large as the chandelier of Cosmopolitan in Vegas; another influence perhaps? Why isn’t the Met today taking advantage of Sandy for a production of Dutchman in the New York harbor? Anyway, there are worse things in life than enjoying Verdi at Sidney harbor. Thanks for the review.

    • Agnese di Cervia

      Was the Sydney Opera House intended to be a background when they built it? It looks good as a landscape for tourists, but not for opera?

      • DonCarloFanatic

        I gathered from some early advertising they were doing that the audience would be sitting in bleachers up against the opera house, facing the harbor and the barge/stage. This clip suggests otherwise. I am curious about this production even though for some reason I have lost my taste for Traviata. I’d like to hear more about the staging. Hopefully someone will post a bit of it on YouTube and I can check it out without leaving the comfort of my windswept, Sandy-embattled home.

        • ianw2

          No, they were always going to be seated across the harbour in the Domain because a lot of the infrastructure was already there for outdoor seating (there’s a cinema in the same location during summer).

          I only watched the tv broadcast, so wasn’t really in the whole ambient spirit of proceedings, but felt much the same way as the reviewer above.

          There’s a whole channel on youtube of highlights:

        • ianw2

          If you’re really curious, google map Farm Cove and you’ll see exactly where it sits.

  • Constantine A. Papas

    Do we rally need another aged-wrinkled Violetta in a red dress? Netrebko owns the one and only; and she has the youth and looks to make if fit better.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      Good point. Dessay played her recently as a dried-up, bedraggled whore in a cheap gin mill. It was a degraded staging and contrary to the duality implicit in Violetta’s lavish existence. A young man like Alfredo could be forgiven for not seeing the social difference between Violetta’s brilliant ball and an equally brilliant ball given for respectable jeunes filles; he could hardly fail to notice that he was slumming in the seedy Dessay production.

      • oedipe

        What “seedy Dessay production” are you talking about? I didn’t know Dessay has produced Traviata.

        • ianw2

          I’m assuming he means Aix, which Dessay was in but not producing.

          • oedipe

            You think so? The Aix Traviata was produced by Sivadier, not Dessay, it was not a “degraded staging”, it was not “contrary to… Violetta’s lavish existence” (the lavish existence of a sick courtisane, really?), nor was it any seedier than any run-of-the-mill regie production.

            BTW, for the -I am sure- numerous lovers of Dessay, Sivadier and French movies on Parterre, the documentary Traviata et nous, about the making of the Aix production, will be presented at the New York Film Festival.

          • ianw2

            But when compared to the usual hoop skirt and gilt mirror extravaganzas of Traviata, the Aix production (which I quite liked) could be considered a little ‘seedier’.

      • operalover9001

        I don’t see how Alfredo being invited and going to a party that turns out to be a lot more wild than he expected is unrealistic.

    • manou

      Dear Dr Pappas -- I find that I am the owner of your book. Would you recommend it for a 22 hour flight?

  • 10 points to OperaTeen for writing a better review of an opera than most I’ve read in mainstream press here (in Australia) lately- however- trying to make sense of most outdoor or stadium reggie performances is a wasted exercise. That’s why serious local opera lovers like me gave this one a big miss!
    I was delighted to hear so many people wax lyrical about what a great experience it was to attend only because I knew Opera Australia needed the money and still hope that some of the bucks raised with the plebian spectacles will translate into more money for properly presented in house productions.
    I’m not a snob -- but I don’t go to opera in the park for the same reason. Trying to hear the music while some ignorami sitting behind me are literally having a picnic while talking loudly is not my cup of tea.
    Opera in presentations like this is just another form of prostitution for those that want it and amen to that- as long as it pays the opera companies, who cares? I’ll end with a serious tip of what’s next- aside from Carmen on the Harbour I believe the next inspiration will be an Opera on the sand -- somewhere near Surfers Paradise.

  • Constantine A. Papas


    Of course; but it will keep you awake. Once you started, you cannot put the book down.Let me know what you think. Have a nice trip. BTW, don’t address me as”Dr.” It’s too formal. Besides, I retired a few years ago and have given up my medical license to practice.

    • manou

      Well, I find that it does add some much needed cachet to the site -- and Costas is just too familiar.

  • Zambello seems to be quite an uneven director. I quite liked her Troyens at the Met (which is being revived). And many people here commented positively about her SFO Ring. But I’ve also heard lots of bad things about other productions.

    Maybe it’s a question of time. She’s so busy that she can’t give adequate consideration (and genuine inspiration) to all her productions.

    • If that is true, then it is troubling. Churning out shit like it is an assembly line? Not good.n

      • If my hypothesis is true, then it is troubling indeed but sadly not at all uncommon. We all know people who stretch themselves too thin and end up short-changing their clients because there isn’t enough of them to go around. When one has an established reputation and the offers start pouring in, I think it important to maintain quality control by only taking on projects that make sense, rather than saying yes to every offer that can be squeezed into one’s calendar.

  • DharmaBray

    The economics of this seems to be that this event (with Carmen on the Harbour in 2013), and interminable runs of South Pacific, is paying for the Melbourne Ring cycle and for the company surviving and being able to put on its regular mainstage productions. Which would be fine if the mainstage season was a little more interesting than endless Puccini interspersed with a Die Tote Stadt and Salome this year and with…. well…. Albert Herring (to commemorate the Britten anniversary) next year…

    • manou

      Will the Herring be underwater?

      • DharmaBray

        Sadly not, the original plan to stage it at Sydney’s Produce Market was scuttled as the wrong produce would be in season.

        • manou

          Sorry to hear the original plan was pickled.

          • DharmaBray

            Though I hear Sydney’s agricultural school might be performing St Nicolas.

  • The_Kid

    So, “La Triviata”, eh?

  • Another classic Brian Castles-Onion performance: