By any standards, Opera Australia’s staging of La Traviata on Sydney Harbour in April was a triumph. The terrifying logistics included a purpose-built raked stage on foundations driven deep into the harbour bed, a signature oversized chandelier rising and falling above the action, and amplified singers coordinated by video-link with conductor Brian Castles-Onion and the AOBO Orchestra underneath it all. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did anyone mention how much this all must have cost?
In the end, the critics were unanimous in their praise for a production that had so many unforgettable visual images associated with it, from the fireworks at the end of the drinking song, to the high notes in Sempre Libera being sung mid-air above Sydney Harbour, and on to the party guests in Act Two arriving by water-taxi. But as this incredible DVD demonstrates, what made this production one for the ages was the exact opposite of spectacle. With its superb casting, Francesca Zambello’s staging of the Verdi masterpiece centres ultimately on the deep and profoundly human relationships that occur against that tawdry world of the beautiful people and their glitter-ball existence. Librettist Francesco Piave’s intense psychological drama features lengthy duets wherein the party world of the terminally ill courtesan Violetta (Emma Matthews) is shattered by her genuine love for Alfredo (Gianluca Terranova), and thus confronts traditional morality in the form of his father Giorgio Germont (Jonathan Summers). And it’s here, in the two-handers between these three fine acting-singer leads, that this epic production transcends the 32m x 24m open-air stage and instead becomes the most intimate of drawing-room dramas.
Well sung throughout, the glorious gravitas of Summers electrifies the scene where he convinces Violetta to give up Alfredo, and the emotional stakes are heightened from thereon in. It all culminates in Emma Matthews’ extraordinary deathbed showpiece, where her momentary flickering of the flame of life manifests as manic energy resembling Lucia’s mad scene, before petering out so movingly. For Australia’s finest coloratura soprano it’s a career- defining role-debut, perfectly complemented by Gianluca Terranova’s Alfredo, who lives the part so convincingly that he really does look like he’s going to tear off his rival Baron Duphol’s head (James Clayton) after throwing money at Violetta in Act Two.
Add the sound of carolling magpies at the start as the camera takes you into the venue and it’s probably even better than being there yourself. A flawless DVD memento of an historic event in Australian opera.