OHP has reconfigured the auditorium for a socially-distanced Covid world: in place of tiers to a vertiginous back row, we have a gently sloping auditorium filled with 400 chairs, no two alike, stage props that have been begged and borrowed from theatres all over London. At OHP, even the seats have theatrical experience.
Fears that this might affect the sound were unfounded and Cordelia Chisholm’s stylish set helped bounce every note from the cast, chorus and the reduced-size orchestra into the auditorium.
Verdi’s opera, written in 1853, tells the story of a woman dying from a respiratory disease. In the venal society she inhabits, men have all the power, influence and money and women survive by making themselves attractive to wealthy 'protectors'. All of which may sound familiar to a contemporary audience.
Women must ingratiate themselves with men in Violetta's Paris. Photo: Ali Wright
Before a note of music was played, director Rodula Gaitanou sent the sound of Violetta’s laboured breathing into the auditorium, which then merged into the ethereal sounds of the start of Verdi’s overture, high mournful strings painting a portrait of the dying Violetta and exquisitely played by the City of London Sinfonia. It was a gripping start to a fairly conventional production, set perfectly sensibly in the 1890s, when Paris was still a city of beautiful courtesans and men fighting duels to defend their (own) honour.
Chisholm’s set lends a welcome air of luxury – a gold-framed Hall of Mirrors running diagonally across the stage, leading to a circular room where Violetta waits to welcome her guests. Violetta is played by the Australian soprano Lauren Fagan, who sang the rôle when this production was new in 2018 and who knows how to negotiate every corner of Violetta’s challenging music.
The corrupt atmosphere where everything is for sale is, in a nice touch, conjured up by the unveiling of a painting which turns out to be Courbet’s explicit L’Origine du Monde, acquired by the Marquis, Violetta’s current protector.
Violetta (left, Lauren Fagan) is insulted by her lover Alfredo (Matteo Desole). Photo: Ali Wright
The young poet who persuades her to give up the hectic life that is killing her is played by Matteo Desole, a real Italian tenor with a large voice that he seemed determined to make even larger. He sang Alfredo as if he would rather be singing Manrico in Verdi's grand Il Trovatore, but, in the last act, showed that he could also produce beautifully soft, sustained singing which would have been welcome earlier in the evening.
In Act 2, the lovers are living an idyllic life in the countryside, paid for by Violetta secretly selling her possessions, and the Hall of Mirrors is transformed into a conservatory. Germont, Alfredo’s father, arrives to rescue him from the clutches of the woman he assumes is ruining him. Gaitanou has him bring a large wad of cash to pay Violetta off with, a telling foreshadowing of the next scene where Alfredo throws his gambling winnings in Violetta’s face to pay her for her 'services'.
Stephen Gadd portrays Germont very sympathetically, perhaps too sympathetically for this representative of a pitiless and hypocritical society who brushes off Violetta’s pleas that she is dying. He forces her to leave Alfredo and return to the life that’s killing her. When he turns up at Flora’s party and disowns Alfredo for publicly humiliating Violetta, he overlooks the fact that he himself is the main engine of their tragedy.
Violetta (Lauren Fagan) dies alone. Photo: Ali Wright
Then, in the last Act of this production, something extraordinary happens.
As part of this season’s reconfigured auditorium, a runway has been built right round where the orchestra pit would normally be. Matthew Kofi Waldren conducts the City of London Sinfonia from the centre. Gaitanou has delirious Violetta run down this runway and it is here, front and centre, just a few feet from the audience and with the orchestra behind her, that her reunion with Alfredo is staged. The effect on the audience is electrifying. The fourth wall had been punched through at the most poignant moment in the story and the profound silence descended which only happens when an entire audience is completely gripped.
It is also at this point that the socially-distanced staging added another layer to the tragedy. At no point in the staging had the principals touched each other and, at this moment of reunion just before death, it seemed unbearably cruel that the lovers couldn’t embrace. They each curled up on the floor, a little way from each other, trapped in a situation not of their making but which is destroying them.
The external world and the internal world of the opera seemed to fuse. When the other principals joined them for the final quintet, the lighting designer, Simon Corder flooded them all with golden light. When the blackout came on the last chord, the applause was explosive.
La Traviata is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Click here to book for 11 June. Click here for returns, and here for Side Seats sold each Monday for the next week's performances
|La Traviata, Opera Holland Park 2021 review
|Opera Holland Park, Stable Yard, Holland Park, London , W8 6LU | MAP
|South Kensington (underground)
11 Jun 21 – 29 Jun 21, Nine performances remaining. Running time c 3hr including interval
|Click here for more information and booking