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Reviews

<em>Il Traviata</em>, Opera Holland Park 2018
30 May 2018

Feverish love at Opera Holland Park: a fine La traviata opens the 2018 season

If there were any doubts that it was soon to be curtains for Verdi’s titular, tubercular heroine then the tortured gasps of laboured, languishing breath which preceded Rodula Gaitanou’s new production of La traviata for Opera Holland Park would have swiftly served to dispel them.

Il Traviata, Opera Holland Park 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lauren Fagan as Violetta and Ellie Edmonds as Annina

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Indeed, the lingering damp of the summer storms which had rattled and racketed London throughout the day might have led to fears that the audience might be at risk of joining Violetta behind the black curtain which was laboriously closed during the overture, to enshroud the circular ante-room to the far-right of the stage.

It is a delight to see Gaitanou and her designer Cordelia Chisholm making a virtue rather than an issue of the extensive breadth of the Opera Holland Park stage. Rather than force us to swivel our vision back and forth across the expanse with the agility of a tennis-match crowd - as was the case with Marie Lambert’s scenographically inventive-cum-hyperactive production of Zazà last year - or push the action to a narrow fore-stage strip, as did Oliver Platt last season when directing Don Giovanni , Gaitanou and Chisholm have created a gracious sweep of reflective glass and decorous greenery: a single set which serves equally well as society salon or country chateau. As the strains of the overture unfurl, a footman refreshes the bouquets and un-drapes a chaise-longue. The curtained circle is first boudoir then conservatory; at the close, quasi-brothel then death chamber.

Chisholm set.jpgPhoto credit: Robert Workman.

The lack of scenic fuss sharpens the dramatic clarity and colours are similarly simple and striking. In Act 1 Violetta is helped into a gleaming white gown by her maid Annina, (Ellie Edmonds) the dazzling purity of which sets off the blood-splatters which result from her heart-rending hacking. In the final Act, a black dress signals her doom, while Simon Corder’s garish lighting overwhelms the day-light lucidity with the ghoulish purple excess of Flora’s party. The orangery doors come into their own in this last Act: half-open, they admit both lurid light and tumbling crowds of raucous revellers - the Opera Holland Park Chorus in fine voice.

In the title role, Lauren Fagan proves as adept as Gaitanou and Chisholm at commanding the breadth of the OHP stage. Her soprano has real gloss, her coloratura is shaped with expressive grace and her stage presence is gripping. ‘Sempre libera’ was gleefully carefree, sparkling with agility and diamantine shine. Fagan strides the stage with unwavering composure and even her death-approaching agonies have elegiac elegance.

Many will have been thrilled by Matteo Desole’s ringing and pinging but I found his Alfredo, although technically very assured, to be lacking in emotional resonance. There were a few intonation wobbles at the start - understandable, given that this was the first night in an unfamiliar venue, and things quickly settled - but Desole has only two volume switches, loud and very loud, and despite the bel canto ease, the unalleviated boom was wearisome. This Alfredo seemed emotionally disengaged, an impression exacerbated in Act 2 when he was more interested in rearranging the potted plants in his country conservatory than in living the sentiments of his aria. Despite these misgivings, I can’t deny that Desole’s voice carries effortlessly and his legato phrasing is luxurious - no mean virtues in this venue.

Robert W 104 Alfredo.jpg Matteo Desole as Alfredo. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Stephen Gadd’s Germont is unbendingly bourgeois and stern, though he clearly comes to recognise Violetta’s courtesy and good manners, and despite some occasional lack of firmness vocally Germont’s confrontation with Violetta in Act 2 is one of the most dramatically convincing and compelling episodes of the drama, as Alfredo’s father pushes his son’s concubine relentlessly towards sacrificial renunciation. In ‘Di Provenza il mar’, Germont’s nostalgic reminiscence feels entirely sincere.

La Trav and Germont.jpgLauren Fagan as Violetta and Stephen Gadd as Giorgio Germont. Photo credit: Ali Wright.

Though the spotlight shines firmly on the central, fraught triangle, the minor roles all make their mark, for the unfussy staging gives them room to find their ground and occupy it. Laura Woods is a minxy Flora, her voice full of colour and lushness; Charne Rochford as Gastone and Nicholas Garrett’ as Douphol define their characters well.

Although the overture sounded somewhat thin and lacking in sentiment, conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren encouraged ever more responsive playing from the City of London Sinfonia and the precision of the playing in the final Act was complemented by impassioned warmth. Waldren doesn’t hang about and that only serves to enhance the sure dramatic thrust established by Gaitanou and Chisholm.

La Traviata with Gaston.jpgLauren Fagan as Violetta and Nicholas Garrett as Barone Douphol. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

In the closing scene, the reflections in Chisholm’s glass evoke fore-shadowings of Violetta’s ghostly form - as if she is haunting the stage even while she still struggles to draw her last, irregular, painful breaths. The recording of shallow consumptive breathlessness echoes disturbingly in the memory.

Despite the Parisian partying and pleasures, Gaitanou’s La traviata is permeated with the shadows of disease and death. Fagan’s Violetta is both frail and fervent; the fever of love and illness burn with equal intensity. It’s a paradoxically uplifting blend.

Claire Seymour

Violetta - Lauren Fagan, Alfredo - Matteo Desole, Giorgio Germont - Stephen Gadd, Flora - Laura Woods, Annina - Ellie Edmonds, Gastone - Charne Rochford, Barone Douphol - Nicholas Garrett, Marchese d’Obigny - David Stephenson, Dottore Grenvil - Henry Grant Kerswell, Giuseppe - Robert Jenkins Flora's Servant - Ian Massa-Harris, Messenger Alistair Sutherland; Director - Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor - Matthew Kofi Waldren, Designer - Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting Designer - Simon Corder, Movement Director - Steve Elias, City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus.

Opera Holland Park, London; Tuesday 29th May 2018

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