In celebration of the ongoing return to live theatre, Sydney turned on perfect conditions for the opening night of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour. Cancelled exactly a year ago, the excitement of the rescheduled season is significantly magnified by the outstanding quality of the performance of soprano Stacey Alleaume, giving as thrilling a role debut as could possibly be imagined.
The return to the opera that was presented in the inaugural Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour prompts reflection on the extraordinary success of the annual event. While the venue now has a little more polish, the fact that the structure and concept are basically the same as in 2012 speaks to the visionary scope of the original concept. A truly stunning location hosts a terrific blend of art and commerce, with varied refreshment options complementing the elegant social atmosphere.
Not technically a revival, La Traviata is presented with the same design team but a new director and choreographer; the 2021 season billed as being “Based on an Original Production by Francesca Zambello.”
The most striking initial difference is set designer Brian Thompson’s addition of a rear Paris silhouette, the outline of which can glow in a range of carefully coordinated colours. Tess Schofield’s visually appealing La Dolce Vita-inspired costumes bring the action somewhat closer to present day, enhancing audience connection with the characters and their plight.
New director Constantine Costi makes confident use of the vast performance space, the floor of the stage still representing a mirror into which the glamorous Violetta would have often gazed.
Costi boosts the spectacle by adding more choreography, particularly in the overture, in which the death bed setting of the 2012 production is replaced by Violetta jealously gazing at festive dancers, already longing for the lifestyle she is soon to lose. Choreographer Shannon Burns delivers crisp choreography that is delightfully showy and yet perfectly supportive of the story telling.
Costi ensures that Violetta’s illness is clearly conveyed in act one. While party scenes are suitably energised, there is a strong sense of realism in the more private scenes, ensuring that the tragedy lands with affecting power. Even with the new Paris silhouette and, of course, the mighty chandelier, the settings are relatively simple, allowing a clear focus on the music and drama. Newcomers will be dazzled by the dancing and fireworks and will go on to be drawn into the vivid, emotionally charged story.
John Rayment repeats lighting design duties, adding extra splashes of colour for the new season. Des O’Neill steps into the role of sound designer to excellent effect. Vocals sound as natural as possible given the necessary use of microphones. Orchestral music is well engineered, with particular success in the amplification of characterful moments from individual instruments. instrumental music and vocals are perfectly balanced, allowing the audience to relax and simply enjoy the experience.
Returning for an incredible eighth season of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, maestro Brian Castles-Onion leads the musicians and singers to a smoothly integrated, immaculately synchronised performance. Castle-Onions’ innate musicality and sheer joy at performing combine for a reliably stellar result.
For the opera newcomer, La Traviata has the simplest of scenarios to follow, with the action focused upon a mere three characters. Already programmed before the pandemic, the choice of storyline may appear unsuitable alongside the current health crisis, and yet the tale of a woman robbed of the joy of her life by a pulmonary illness has additional poignancy when viewed in light of innumerable COVID-related deaths.
Singing “Sempre libera,” Violetta’s overhead flight in the mighty chandelier gives a literal representation of Alleaume’s soaring performance. With the talents of a dozen sopranos, Alleaume flits seamlessly from fearful to courageous, from kittenish to passionately full-blooded, from dazzling to desperate and from hesitant to determinedly driven. Alleaume’s luscious, expressive vocals feature immaculate pitch and stunning high notes. Entertaining and affecting, this is a highly memorable performance sure to be savoured by all who are fortunate enough to attend.
Having made his Australian debut in the same role in the 2015 (indoor) season of La Traviata, Kosovan tenor Rame Lahaj returns as Alfredo Germont for this outdoor season. Strikingly handsome, Lahaj nonetheless conveys Alfredo’s initial stiffly awkward bashfulness at meeting the far more worldly Violetta. Continuing the arc, Lahaj visibly loosens in act two when Alfredo’s romantic confidence is at its peak. His singing of the role is occasionally hampered by slight pitch difficulties and the choice of the final note “O min remorse” down the octave suffers in comparison to Alleaume’s seemingly effortless high notes. Projecting a sensually romantic presence, Lahaj appears at his best in each of Alfredo’s duets, a highlight being the moving finale “Parigi, o cara.”
In an impressive role debut, experienced Australian baritone Michael Honeyman brings an interesting interpretation to Giorgio Germont. Often portrayed as a sternly forbidding patriarch, Honeyman imbues Giorgio with a humbler sense of everyman, simply stating his case for his children’s honour to Violetta and giving her the choice to comply. This focus works well with the overall sense of realism of the production, and Giorgio’s ultimate remorse is all the more affecting for it. Honeyman sings the role with a fine legato, keeping showy dynamics to a judicious minimum.
The supporting roles are performed by a talented set of Australian singers.
Mezzo-soprano Celeste Haworth brings out the vivacious self-confidence of gregarious hostess Flora. Soprano Danita Weatherstone gives tender support as Violetta’s devoted maid, Annina.
Tenor John Longmuir practically owns the role of Gastone in Australia, seen here not just singing the role with characteristic flair but given more to do as the brash fellow throws himself into the toreador performance at Flora’s party. In a promising solo debut, baritone Alexander Sefton creates a distinctive character for the Baron Douphol. Andrew Moran is an imposing figure as the decadent Marquis D’Obigny. Gennadi Dubinksy conveys the regretful helplessness of Doctor Grenvil.
Ensemble singing is reliably pristine, with crowd scenes boosted to great visual effect with dancers and additional actors.
Already the envy of the world opera stage, the current season of La Traviata is all the more impressive given the tremendous struggles faced by the world’s arts communities in reopening. Local audiences have every reason to flock to Sydney Harbour for La Traviata.
Opening night of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata was dedicated to the memory of Taryn Fiebig, “a much loved member of the Opera Australia family.”
Special drink and dining opportunities are available at the HSBC Platinum Club.
Man in Chair reviewed the 2012 premiere season of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour.
Photos: Prudence Upton