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.