There’s much to admire as Emma Matthews saddles up Elijah Moshinsky’s warhorse.
You have to wonder what a 19-year-old production that Sydney audiences have seen more than a few times in recent years is doing in Opera Australia’s 2013 season. Australian director Elijah Moshinsky’s sumptuous and faithful 1994 production of La Traviata is a perennial favourite of both audiences and the company, but it really is old news. Verdi’s tragic masterpiece is so dramatically and musically ripe, it would have to be on the top of most opera directors’ wish lists, so it’d be nice to see someone else get a crack at it. But when you have a star that shines as brightly as Emma Matthews at the centre and a supporting cast with serious vocal and dramatic chemistry, it’s clear to see why the old faithful has been dragged out again.
It’s a testament to the performers onstage that nothing in Moshinsky’s production looks tired. From Michael Yeargan’s miraculous sets through to the vibrancy of the chorus numbers in the first two acts, everything comes up shining. In the two big party scenes, Moshinsky and Yeargan have worked together to crowd the stage with detail to create the authentic hustle and bustle of a party. In the more intimate scenes, the gentleness of Moshinsky’s staging shines, thanks largely to rehearsal director Roger Press. But to make all of this work, the performers onstage need to work together and have genuine chemistry.
In last year’s La Traviata on Sydney Harbour, Emma Matthews delivered a performance as Violetta as big as the chandelier that hung above her. In the confines of the Sydney Opera House, she delivers an intimate and textured performance that draws you in and breaks your heart. Rather than playing to the back row of the theatre, she plays to her fellow singers and invites the audience into her world. Dramatically, it may be her finest performance yet, although vocally, she isn’t the perfect fit for the role.
Violetta has been traditionally played by dramatic coloratura sopranos and when you hear a lyric soprano like Matthews in the role, it’s clear why. The score requires a gutsy middle register in certain moments that Matthews simply doesn’t have. On the harbour, with the benefit of amplification, these problems were easily forgiven, but without it they occasionally rear their head, especially in the vibrant opening scene. That’s not to say that it’s not a magnificent technical performance; her cadenzas are absolutely perfect, her tone is gorgeous and the coloratura passages are thrilling. She fakes it admirably and along with conductor Patrick Lange is able to highlight the delicacy and agility of her voice and put a very personal vocal stamp on the score.
As Violetta’s admirer and eventual lover Alfredo, Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski goes from uptight, desperate admirer to jilted lover brilliantly. It’s near impossible to make Alfredo genuinely likeable, but he’s generally in fine voice and works well with Matthews. On opening night, he sounded a little fatigued in the second act, but there’s a roundness and earthiness to his voice that contrasts beautifully with Matthews’ ethereal tones.
La Traviata has always been all about Violetta. Based on real-life French courtesan Marie Duplessis, who lived big and died young at 23, Verdi wrote a role that features both multiple showpieces for a coloratura soprano and a uniquely intriguing and tragic journey. But on opening night, José Carbó’s performance as Giorgio, the father of Alfredo who asks Violetta to give up her love, almost overshadowed Matthews. But where Matthews’ Violetta is a perfect dramatic fit and an awkward vocal fit, Carbó’s Giorgio is a perfect vocal fit and an awkward dramatic fit. In the hands of a singer like Carbó, Giorgio is a gift of a role for a baritone. Verdi has given Giorgio the type of round, soaring phrases baritones so rarely get and it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever hear them sung better than they are here. On opening night, Carbó’s sound was as rich and velvety as one could possibly hope and he won consistently more enthusiastic applause than Matthews because of that. Whether he’s actually believable as the father figure is another matter. It’s not so much that he looks too young for the role, he just doesn’t hold himself with the kind of assured authority Giorgio should have. But his chemistry with Matthews is fantastic.
Under the baton of Patrick Lange, the orchestra delivers an expressive and sensitive performance that supports the action and onstage. From the sigh of strings that begin the overture through to the raucous party of the second act, the score is performed with confidence and nuance.
While Opera Australia is well and truly due for a new take on La Traviata, this production is worth revisiting for the quality of the performances. Even with Matthews struggling to stay afloat in certain moments, it’s fulfilling musically, with an intimacy that somehow manages to amplify every emotional turn and keep you on the edge of your seat. Matthews is a fine artist at the peak of her career and that’s always worth hearing, even if the singer isn’t totally at home in the role.
La Traviata plays the Sydney Opera House until August 3