The acclaimed English writer, Julian Barnes once said,
“Opera cuts to the chase-as death does. An art which seeks, more than any other form, to break your heart”.
It is no coincidence that death and opera are so often intertwined. Every great performance thrives on the high emotionality of the viewers and players; a brief first encounter, a passionate embrace, jealously, pure commitment, betrayal, revenge and the finite resolution of it all, death.
There are those artists who have strived to embrace the fundamentals of operatic performance. The Italian film director and screenwriter Federico Fellini was certainly one. His distinct style that blended fantasy and baroque, most notably in his la Dolce Vita, was in essence an opera. More recently, the Australian director Baz Lurhman has cited Italian grand opera as a major influence on his work.
But opera in its most pure form is a penetrable sight.
The Royal Opera House is playing Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata till March. La Traviata is one of Verdi’s most acclaimed opera’s: a tragic tale of a Parisian courtesan, Violetta, who sacrifices position and status in the bohemian capital for the love of Alfredo. La Traviata has the unique ability to ‘break the hearts’ of even those of the most stoic dispositions.
Perhaps it is the naked emotional honesty of Violetta, her desperate vulnerability after Alfredo callously and publicly condemns her in the Marquis D’Obigny’s Parisian demimonde. The innocence and youth of the young Alfredo and his inability to control emotion of jealously lust and love makes the audience frustrated but also sympathetic. Or perhaps it is because Verdi exposes the hypocrisy, misogyny and sexual politics at the heart of European society in mid 19th century Paris.
There are certain romantic notions that are always indulged when we consider Paris in its bohemian glory, and yet underpinning this bourgeoisie society sickness, destitution, cruelty and power were ever present.
Verdi’s renowned and most celebrated opera is based on La dae aux Camelias (1852), a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The title character in Dumas’s novel is Marguerite Gautier, who is based on the courtesan Marie Duplessis, the real life lover of Dumas. Marie Duplessis like her counterpart Violetta died of tuberculosis. Duplessis was a famous French courtesan noted for her beauty, wit and discretion. Her life was marred by tragedy, passed from one lover to the next she died penniless at the mere age of 23.
Thus La Traviata is not merely a grand opera laced with extreme emotional and unforeseeable circumstances; rather Verdi’s took inspiration from the conditions of his time.
Richard Eyre’s production pays homage to Verdi’s original set in mid 19th century Paris. It begins in Violetta’s Parisian abode with a large ensemble cast who erupt into the aria ‘Brindisi’. It is a brilliant chorus large-scale scene, and Violetta as hostess basks in her societal glory as she engages in tête-à-tête with her lovers, drinks with her other courtesan friends, and finally is introduced to Alfredo.
The set is something to be admired. The design manager favours the ochre colours of Renaissance Europe, which lend a lovely contrast to the vibrant hues of green, orange and red, colours, which the costume supervisor favours for the ensemble cast. Violetta begins somewhat ironically in white, but as the opera progresses she transcends into darker more vivacious attire.
The performances were spectacular and Russia’s Venera Gimadieva played the high demanding soprano part of Violetta exquisitely. Violetta is a difficult part; she has demanding aria’s but also scenes that require skilful acting. She is a character of multi dimensions, although she is a prostitute famous for her lovers and lavish lifestyle there remains an innocence and purity to her. Of course the aesthetic design can explicitly visualise this disparity but it requires a skilful performance by Verdi’s leading lady to evoke sympathy from her audience. Gimadieva wholeheartedly accomplishes this.
Alfredo is a rather insipid character, although Samir Pirgu plays him with more gumption than originally required. But the stealing male performance of the night must be that of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont played by Italian Luca Salsi. The intimate duet with Violetta in the second act was remarkable, and Salsi played him with just the right amount of sternness interlaced with compassion for Violetta’s condition.
It was a fantastic performance by the Royal Opera and well worth a visit. Richard Eyre manages to take one of the celebrated opera’s of all time and still maintain some originality in his direction. Aesthetically it was beautiful, but it was the performances, particularly from Venera Gimadieva as Violetta, which made this performance of Verdi’s opera really very special.
Tickets for La Traviata can be booked online at http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/la-traviata-by-richard-eyre
Words: Catherine McMaster
Image: Catherine McMaster and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MarieDuplessis.jpg