Jessica Harris is at Birmingham Hippodrome for the latest production of a classic.
This production of Verdi’s La traviata by the Welsh National Opera is beautifully sung and lavishly staged, the charm of the production making its underlying themes all the more poignant. Verdi’s social concerns are clearly presented, and the underbelly of many 19th-century European cities clearly exposed. Beneath a veneer of elegance and privilege was the scourge of prostitution or courtensanship, to use the term of the times which conveyed an air of respectability. Seen as a necessary sexual outlet for men, prostitution was often the only means of paid employment for women. Yet, it was women who were condemned for their actions, rather than men.
La traviata means ‘The fallen woman’ and Violetta, the central character of this opera, is seen as such as she conducts her life amongst high society. Complications arise when Violetta and Alfonso fall in love. Their relationship is deemed unacceptable by Alfonso’s father who regards it as a threat to his daughter’s marriage prospects. Under pressure, Violetta agrees to leave Alfonso and, short of money, becomes the mistress of Baron Douphol.
Act One sets the context of permissiveness and indulgence of 19th-century Paris. A party scene conveys the opulence of the period and the way in which courtesans such as Violetta are accepted as a necessary evil.
Act Two opens with a cameo scene of Violetta and Alfredo in their bedroom, Violetta lying in the bed. Only half of the stage is revealed, presenting a feeling of intimacy and giving the audience a glimpse of their heartfelt passion for each other. It ends with another party where a gypsy troupe and a matador dance. The sexual innuendo is all too clear, reinforcing the hypocrisy of the times.
Act Three gives way to tragedy. The deathbed scene, where Violetta and Alfonso are reunited in their love, is pared back, the white sheets set against the dark panelling of the room. The gaiety of Parisian life is a world away, as the poignancy and pain of their thwarted love is exposed.
Other themes run through this memorable piece, including that of shame and the true nature of empathy. Alfonso cannot bear the fact that, unbeknown to him, Violetta has been selling her possessions to pay their bills. On discovering the truth, he wins money at cards. The anger with which he hurls the notes at her to repay his debt is palpable. In contrast, Violetta, despite having a terminal illness, is shown as having genuine care for others, asking for half of her meager wealth to be given to those less well-off than she.
Violetta is sung by soprano Stacey Alleaume. Her voice is outstanding, her vocal range wide, and she moves seamlessly from sweeping melodies to moments of pure tenderness. Her performance expresses the turmoil of her position. Knowing that she is terminally ill and that, as a ‘fallen woman’, her love has no future, she determines to enjoy life’s pleasures for as long as she can. Alfonso is sung by tenor David Junghoon Kim. His performance is full of passion, from fervent love to furious rage.
Duets by Alleaume and Kim are intense and moving, and Alleaume’s several arias, from Sempre libera to Addio, del passato are a joy to listen to. The opera’s best-known piece, Brindisi (the drinking song) is sung with gusto by soloists and chorus alike. The opera’s overture, where the strings take prominence, is a stunning opening, its slow tempo and minor key suggesting the misfortune that is to come.
The production was conducted by Alexander Joel and directed by Sarah Crisp. Designer was Tanya McCallin and lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton.
La Traviata is on national tour until 25th November. For further information visit wno.org.uk.
Pics – Julian Guidera.