In one of Melbourne's most keenly anticipated opera events of the year, the wait to hear Australia's own Jessica Pratt in La Traviata has been well worth it.
In contrast with Victorian Opera’s more adventurous repertoire choices, the adventure here is in the unique international production and starry cast. As testament to their impressive flexibility as a company, the choice to stage La Traviata shows that Victorian Opera is fully equipped to mount a lavish, full-scale classic opera,
Originating in 1992, Henning Brockhaus' concept is visually striking and richly symbolic. Originally designed by Josef Svoboda, the staging utilises a giant rear/overhead tilted mirror, showing us every intimate detail of the decadent lifestyles portrayed on stage. The master touch in the design is the positioning of full sized painted canvases on the floor. These are reflected into place where backdrops would usually hang, but with a shimmering, surreal splendour that could not be achieved with regular scenery. The designer for this adaptation is Benito Leonori.
With a more literal approach to the setting and context of the story than is often taken, Brockhaus ensures that the salacious, sexual lives of the characters are clearly conveyed. Rather than her frequent portrayal as the toast of society, Violetta is shown unmistakably as a prostitute in a salon of women who are there for the entertainment and pleasure of men. The lively opening sees chorus members and dancers cavorting in a debauched evening of indulgence.
From the moment she first opens her mouth to sing, Jessica Pratt makes it clear why we are all here. Pouring forth like liquid gold, Pratt’s natural, effortless soprano has the audience entranced with its beauty and dexterity. Each of Violetta’s moods and styles are no problem for Pratt; from soaring cadenzas to breathless pianissimo, she has the audience’s rapt attention at all times. While Pratt may appear a little healthy to be a dying consumptive, she is suitably pasty and disheveled at the end; meanwhile, her buxom beauty makes her popularity as a courtesan clear. Pratt particularly impresses in Violetta’s big act one tour de force sequence of “É strano,” “Ah! Fors’è lui” and Sempre libera,” earning a rousing, extended ovation at the end of the act. The way her voice exquisitely caresses the phrases in “Ah! fors’è lui” is sublime.
Pratt, and indeed the whole company, benefit from performing in Her Majesty’s Theatre, a far more intimate venue that the Opera Australia’s home at the State Theatre. The chance to hear opera sounding so wonderful at The Maj is as much a reason to attend this season as any of the attractions of performers and production.
An excellent use of the giant mirror comes at the top of act two. Living the carefree life of unfettered love, Alfredo lies on his back singing “De’ miei bolenti spiriti” while the mirror shows him floating overhead, facing us as he sings. Changing his entire body language and vocal expression, visting Italian tenor Alessandro Scotto di Luisi conveys the sharp turn of feeling between this aria and the next, after Alfredo learns that Violetta is selling possessions to support their lifestyle. On opening night, Scotto di Luisi visibly lost his nerve at the end of "O mio rimorso," singing the final note down the octave and leaving the stage in a bit if an embarrassed rush. Still, the handsome young tenor regained composure for his subsequent scenes, and gave a promising performance overall.
Usually known for playing comic roles that benefit from his sparkling smile and twinkling eyes, José Carbó is a revelation in the darkly dramatic role of Giorgio Germont. A little too short to convey the character’s imposing nature, Carbó lets his voice do all the work to brilliant effect. Giorgio’s two main arias are supported by changes in the carpet backdrops. As “Pura siccome un angelo’ begins, the image of the country house peels back to reveal a charming field of daisies. It peels again for “Di Provenza il mar” to reveal a collage of vintage family portraits. Carbó expertly balances the brutal and compassionate sides of Giorgio, and is in tremendous voice throughout.
There is a great impact at the opening of the curtain for act two, scene two, in which we find the cast glittering in black and dark red, gambling at tables in Flora's gilt edged salon. Gypsies and matadors are cleverly presented as actual adult entertainment, wearing titillating costumes. The roles are performed by real dancers, who are excellent, while the chorus sings. Society men availing themselves of the pleasures of Flora’s salon camp it up in feather boas. In a neat piece of choreography, the full company’s dance spirals in on itself then reveals the arrival of Alfredo. Choreography is by Valentina Escobar, who also serves as assistant director.
Pratt, as Violetta, has the best of Giancarlo Colis’ costumes, with her stunning black dress for Flora’s salon the best of these. Some of the men’s suits seem to be from a more recent period than this production’s setting. In another odd but presumaby deliberate choice, Violetta’s servants Annina and Giuseppe are dressed rather casually, as if they are her acquaintances rather than her employees.
Excellent use is made of Victorian Opera’s current and recent Young Artists, who are quickly building up impressive performance experience. Standouts are Jeremy Kleeman as the fey Marchese d’Obigny and Nathan Lay, virtually unrecognisable as Baron Douphol. The opportunity to hear first-rate baritone Lay in a larger featured role cannot come soon enough. Dimity Shepherd is reliably wonderful as Flora, dazzling with her glamorous appearance and beautiful voice.
The performance of Pratt, whose stature and fame in the opera world are rising exponentially at present, is certainly not one that any Melbourne operagoer should miss.
Photos: Jeff Busby