By Darby Turnbull

 As I looked around at my fellow audience members at Opera Australia’s latest revival of Elijah Moshinky’s production of La Traviata, I realised what an exceptional position I found myself in. If I were not reviewing this production, I would not have the funds (or the inclination) to sit in such smashing seats and this was my first time seeing La Traviata live, my previous experiences with the piece being recordings and filmed performances. Unlike many others I don’t have decades of opera going experience to compare it to, the gentleman seated beside me had even starred in a production 30 years ago. The lady on the other side of me had expressed trepidation, ‘Traviata…again?’. Similar sentiment for the production playing a few steps down the hall, ‘Hamlet…again?’ which led to a spirited discussion about the merits and limitations of revival and adaption vs. appropriation. What we did agree on however was that the reason to visit this particular iteration was to experience the sublime Stacey Alleaume not merely essay the role of Violetta but write a goddam thesis on it.

For those who think they don’t know Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave’s seminal work, it’s had many, many variations that it’s become a well-worn trope. It was even a trope when they developed it. Callow youth become obsessed with a woman associated with sex work who must come up against patriarchal morality and her rival suitors before she succumbs to consumption. Meanwhile the writers pat themselves on the back for daring to infer that women with sexual agency perhaps aren’t being damned to hell, but she still needs to die to uphold the status quo. It’s there in Camille, it’s even there down the road in Moulin Rouge which doesn’t subvert the trope at all just changes some of the details.

Piave’s libretto is exceptional for the period because it’s essentially a chamber piece; albeit with two large ensemble segments; about ordinary, grounded people having intimate, character driven conflicts that are rooted in emotional reality.

Violetta is a renowned and well-respected courtesan whose opulent lifestyle is funded by wealthy patrons in exchange for her company. As the play begins, she already knows that she’s not long for this world having recently been hospitalised for Tuberculosis and she must decide whether to spend her last months revelling in Paris with her wide social circle or in quiet, domestic monogamy with Alfredo, a new suitor of limited means who’s been infatuated by her before he’s even met her, undoubtedly the latest in a long line of similar young men. Violetta, in love with the vitality and possibility of life decides to give (seemingly) non-transactional love a try.

Alleamume lightens up the stage with charismatic vivacity from her very first entrance (whilst making it abundantly clear that her lungs are in excruciating pain), absolutely making you believe why Violetta is one of the demimondes of Parisian society. She effortlessly works the room, she never stops moving from person to person; embracing, conversing, charming; making every single person feel included.

Hoo-Yoon Chung as her prospective lover, Alfredo cannot compete with her especially since we’re being asked to believe just how much she’s going to sacrifice to be with him and later give him up. He possesses a serviceable but thin tenor but doesn’t provide the necessary chemistry to portray a grand, consuming passion.

In a way it works, Alfredo is a pompous, upper middle class young man from a conservative family who’s so hopelessly naïve that he doesn’t realise that Violetta is funding their affair in the country by selling off her assets.

The bourgeois hypocrisy of the outside world enters in the form of Giorgio, Alfredo’s father who appeals to Violetta to break it off because the family is tainted by association with a ‘fallen woman’. Musically and dramatically the confrontation between Giorgio and Violetta is the emotional highpoint. Mario Cassi, the Italian baritone is devastatingly charismatic as Giorgio, capable of playing as many layers Aleamume as he shamefully persuades her to give up her last few weeks of contentment for the respectability of his family. The two of them sharing the stage is ripe with nuanced, human drama and they sound divine together. It’s the risk of any production of Traviata, the audience is left to wonder why these two don’t just have an affair?

Special mention must go to Danita Weatherstone as Annina, Violetta’s maid, who owns the stage in subliminal appearances displaying a palpable loathing of Alfredo. Weatherstone definitely understands the audiences’ sympathies and is profoundly moving in Act 4 with her passionate devotion to Violetta.

Ho-Yoon Chung fairs significantly better in Acts 3 and 4 where he credibly shows Alfredo’s chauvinistic pride, entitlement and descent into paranoid jealousy when Violetta separates from him and out of necessity returns to her patron.

It’s in Act 4 that Alleaume’s complete emotional, physical and vocal commitment to Violetta reaches its apex. She’s one of those gifted performers who can modulate a detailed, nuanced performance to a large space. Her physical deterioration and almost fanatic grasp on the last ounces of the vitality of life are expertly realised not to mention finding vocal dimensions in the score whilst still singing it flawlessly.

This is the eighth time Opera Australia has revived Elijah Moshinsky’s production, recreated here by Constantine Costi and it remains both an opulent and intimate depiction of 18th century Paris with their elegant salons and the genteel poverty that awaits when you can no longer pay the bills. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J Hall’s costumes are still lush with majesty and even manage to make the state theatre stage look snug.

Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Renato Palumbo inhabit Verdi’s memorable, and incredibly constructed score bringing out the mournful melancholy of the opening prelude to the joyous bacchanalian party scenes.

It’s the funny thing about time capsules, they can polish up beautifully, but it really does depend on just how fierce your nostalgia is for what is being preserved. Yes, La Traviata is rightfully considered one of the greatest operas of all time and Violetta one of the most coveted roles. But what of new works? what of more nuanced musical and dramatic explorations of women who live on the fringes of society without the protection of status and respectability? Violetta of 1853 has to be completely flawless and self-sacrificing for the audiences to mourn her, instead of being allowed anger, outrage or frustration at the appalling behaviour of the men in her life.

We as a 2022 (and doubtless audiences have since the premiere whether the said it or not) can look at Alfredo and see a possessive man who stalks a woman, proclaims he loves her and degrades her in public when she leaves him and gets to live his life, even having her blessing to love again while she dies of a painful disease. I think of designers who roll up the sketches of costumes and sets because the company already have the old ones in the warehouse that can be re-tailored or remade from the original designs.

It’s a tough space to sit in when you can experience a glorious production; assuming you can afford it; but still want more from our main stage, subsidised companies; who in turn rely on their subscribers and proven hits to maintain their success.

Images: Jeff Busby