Not again

LA TRAVIATA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday April 17

                                                                     Corinne Winters

Once again, the national company of Sydney has brought this fidgety version of Verdi’s opera to Melbourne, to serve as a season opener – although you’d have to apply that term loosely as the diet for offer in the State Theatre consists of this lacklustre work,  John Bell’s Nazi update on Tosca, and Massenet’s Don Quichotte fresh from its performances in the Sydney Summer season although without one of the cast drawcards, Elena Maximova’s La Belle Dulcinee giving way to Sian Pendry’s reading of the part.  And that’s it, folks.

Let’s get to the real problem with this Traviata.  It doesn’t lie in Michael Yeargan’s familiar sets: two overstuffed parlours contrasted with bleak prospects in Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3. Nor can you fault Peter J. Hall’s costumes which are consonant with the production’s prevailing ‘look’.  It might not even be attributable to Elijah Moshinsky’s direction which lets the main characters move sensibly around the stage, even if they don’t actually do anything of interest; in fact, the country scene is stripped of visual interest; you’d have to suspect, on purpose.

No, the insurmountable hurdle at the opening night was the music-making, both on stage and in the pit.  Yes, the opera starts with a dangerous Prelude, all slow high strings; conductor Carlo Montanaro could not contrive to give his Orchestra Victoria charges the necessary confidence to carry off this fragile music.  Matters improved when the curtain rose for Act 1 on a set that always looks claustrophobic on this theatre’s large stage space.  The pit wattled along to excellent purpose in the opening dialogue, even if Corinne Winters as Violetta seemed to be distracted by her guests and lagged behind the beat.

This indifference to the established musical pulse is no new thing with opera singers.  Italian opera can fare poorly in this regard, especially Puccini who, as far as some sopranos are concerned,  might as well not have bothered with bar-lines.  And, year after year, what tempo atrocities are committed on Wagner who is much kinder than Verdi to his interpreters, regardless of voice type.

What compounded the problem was Montanaro’s bending over backwards to help Winters along; if she lingered over a phrase – and she did, over several – he followed her meanderings.   You can do that with a lot of free-standing recitative but hardly with the quick-fire repartee that opens Act 1 of this opera.  By the time we arrived at Ah, fors e lui, the pace was dragging significantly, to the point where I thought the aria might have to be re-started, or the conductor would allow it to come to a dead halt.  This devil-may-care attitude to pace doesn’t matter as much later in the opera, but in this section that depicts Violetta as a free spirit and where the character’s ebullience is paramount, there is no defence for dragging out anything, even a self-questioning aria.  Mind you, whether from unwillingness or simple good taste, the singer left out the screeching E flat that every Violetta feels that she has to interpolate before the last note of Sempre libera.

Matters of congruent tempo improved markedly in Act 2 and the solid duet with Germont pere came over as functioning properly.  Even so, Winters failed to convince of the heroine’s despair at sacrificing her happiness for a greater good (if you can call it that).  The notes were there and the emotional gestures were in plain sight, like the pianissimo repeat of Dite alle giovine; yet the necessary communication of a broken spirit failed to come across during the brief cross-purposes duet with Alfredo that is, to my mind, the opera’s most moving passage.

Winters’ death scene worked very well, despite an Addio del passato that might have gained from more variation in attack, although the descending natural A minor scale at ah! tutto fini came over informed by some welcome bitter despair in its articulation.  The soprano has an interesting stage presence and she has familiarity with this role; not surprisingly,  since she has sung it in Basel, San Diego, Seattle, Virginia, Ottawa, London and Hong Kong,  But it was a difficult task to claw back credibility from that unsatisfying first act, even though Verdi gave his sinned-against character a spell-binding farewell with the Cessarono change of pace.

You could find little to complain about with Yosep Kang’s Alfredo.  He carried out his tasks with zeal and an excellent technique, from Libiamo right through to Parigi, o cara with a nicely self-satisfied Di miei bollenti spiriti contrasting with a fetchingly self-indulgent O mio rimorso! as a chaser that brightened the aural landscape before the cant and hypocrisy of this character’s father bears all before him.

If anything, the tenor’s work lacked personality.  Even at Alfredo’s worst moment – when he throws money at Violetta in Flora’s salon – you remained outside the emotional ferment; admiring the temperamental outburst but not convinced that the lad had real cause to whip himself into such a state of frustrated rage.

The opera has only three roles and veteran Jose Carbo took on the important one of Alfredo’s father.  Again, this characterization left me cold, even in those potentially gripping moments where he condoles with Violetta at her tragic loss in giving up Alfredo.  As for Di Provenza, the gentle sway of Verdi’s melody line was not assisted by the bass’s hefty vibrato on the high F at each verse’s end.

Was it a lack of involvement from the singer that militated against any engagement with this personality?  I think so; here, Germont shows little concern for what he is asking of Violetta, contributed to by his lack of physical involvement in the action.  When she asks him Qual figlia m’abbraciate, despite the stage direction, he doesn’t.  Later, Carbo’s Di piu, non lacerarmi at Germont’s moment of self-realisation was delivered without regard for either his tortured son or the dying woman he had come to console.  This wasn’t the depiction of an unbending puritan, forbidding in his self-righteousness; you simply didn’t care about the complexity that Piave preserved from Dumas’ novel.

Dominica Matthews sang a competent Flora; Natalie Aroyan made a self-effacing Annina; John Longmuir enjoyed himself as the young roue Gastone and Tom Hamilton melted into the background as d’Obigny.  Adrian Tamburini brought the customary unpleasant swagger and machismo to Douphol.

Montanaro and his forces sounded best in Flora’s party music, reflecting the action with alacrity.  As usual, the pit output would have gained from more strings, especially violins for the exposed pages that preface the outer acts.  Still, the work rarely sounded commonplace or vulgar, which is always a danger when the chorus takes over.

While Act 1 fared well enough with a satisfyingly full choral texture, the second scene of Act 2 misfired, as it always will, not least because of the cramped conditions that obtain throughout the Noi siamo zingarelle/E Piquillo segment where the choreography looks inefficient and awkward, risible in its efforts to convey Hispanic high spirits.

To be honest, I was relieved when the final curtain came down.  Every once in a while, you could glory in a splendid page or two like the Parigi, o cara duet or Violetta’s magnificent Morro – la mia memoria outburst, but your enjoyment was principally due not to the singers’ work but to Verdi’s touching responsiveness to his characters and the superlative lyricism that he invested in them.   In the end, this was too much of a hard night at the opera.

The production will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8, and Friday May 11. There is one matinee at 1 pm on Saturday April 28.