At its best, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is one of Sydney’s splashiest, most spectacular performing arts events, given its breathtaking setting on a huge purpose-built stage over the water, with the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and cityscape as the backdrop.

This year, with the weather gods smiling after days of destructive, torrential rain, and Stacey Alleaume in glorious form as Violetta, the revival of Verdi’s much-loved opera La Traviata, with its tragic story and beautiful score, proves to be a thrilling, emotional – and, yes, spectacular – evening.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata, 2021Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata, 2021. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Based on the inaugural Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production in 2012, directed by Francesca Zambello, Constantine Costi directs and brings some of his own touches to the restaging, including an additional element to Brian Thomson’s striking set design and new choreography by Shannon Burns.

Originally scheduled for 2020, the production had to be cancelled two weeks before opening due to the coronavirus, and was postponed a year with the same performers in the lead roles.

Though Australia is blessed with a low level of COVID cases, the pandemic brings an added currency to the story about the consumptive courtesan Violetta, who finds true love with Alfredo Germont but agrees to leave him when his father urges her to save the family’s reputation. Forced to fend for herself, Violetta dies of tuberculosis, coughing in Alfredo’s arms as he and his father finally return to beg her forgiveness.

The current debate about the treatment of women that has been raging over the last month in Australia also strikes clear chords in the way Violetta is judged, punished and dictated to by men. Plus ça change.

Originally set in the 1850s, Zambello’s production relocates the opera to the glamorous 1950s, at a time when conservative values were being challenged.

Brian Thomson’s minimal, striking set, which uses a few bold elements to evoke the scene – notably the gigantic, crystal-covered chandelier hanging from a crane, which symbolises the glittering Parisian salons – now has the outline of the 1950s Paris skyline at the back of the stage. Featuring the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the Moulin Rouge, the 30-metre strip uses LED lighting to make it glow in various colours that mix and match with John Rayment’s vibrant lighting on the stage and chandelier. It’s a good visual addition.

The obligatory fireworks explode after the Brindisi, while Act I ends with Violetta’s show-stopping aria, her ode to freedom Sempre libera – ravishingly sung by Alleaume as she ascends into the sky in a transparent capsule at the bottom of the chandelier.

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La TraviataStacey Alleaume as Violetta. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Tess Schofield’s elegant costumes still work their magic, bringing beautiful silhouettes and sparkle to the stage, while using colour – such as a fuchsia dress – to highlight Violetta at the party scenes.

There is also new choreography by Shannon Burns, that references the world of flashy, saucy cabaret and musicals to help bring the party scenes to exuberant life.

Australian-Mauritian singer Stacey Alleaume gives a stunning performance as Violetta. Her luscious, silvery soprano is clear, gorgeous and expressive across her range, and her dazzling top notes are utterly spine-tingling. What’s more she manages to gasp and cough convincingly without it affecting her singing, while her acting is also heartfelt and believable. It’s a triumphant performance vocally and dramatically.

Kosovan tenor Rame Lahaj makes for a handsome Alfredo. He has a somewhat stiff physical presence initially, but relaxes as passion and jealousy fire the character. Despite the occasional pitch problem, he sings passionately, and the final aria Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo, performed with Alleaume, is extremely moving.

Australian baritone Michael Honeyman makes an impressive role debut as Giorgio Germont. Conveying the character’s underlying (if misguided) humanity, Honeyman gives a gently understated performance and sings with lovely warmth and burnished tone.

In the cameo roles, there are strong performances from Celeste Haworth as ageing courtesan Flora, Danita Weatherstone as Violetta’s maid Annina, John Longmuir as Alfredo’s friend Gastone, Alexander Sefton as Violetta’s lover Baron Douphol, Andrew Moran as Marquis D’Obigny, and Gennadi Dubinsky as Doctor Grenvil.

The orchestra, which performs in an enclosed space beneath the stage, gives a lively account of the score conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, and the sound design by Des O’Neill is well balanced.

Stacey Alleaume and Rame Lahaj in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La TraviataStacey Alleaume and Rame Lahaj as Violetta and Alfredo. Photograph © Prudence Upton

On the face of it, La Traviata doesn’t naturally lend itself to a big, showy staging on a huge outdoor stage. Despite the big parties with their popular numbers such as the famous drinking song, the Brindisi, most of the opera’s key moments take place in intimate scenes – which are harder to achieve in a vast setting such as this. However, the production manages to pull it off. The encounter between Giorgio Germont and Violetta is very touching, as are the scenes between Violetta and Alfredo, particularly when Violetta is on her deathbed. With a deeply moving performance from Alleaume, the opera really does end in heartache.

The production is dedicated to Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig, who tragically died far too young a week ago.

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: La Traviata plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point until 25 April


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