A workmanlike production of an old favourite carried over the line by Aldo Di Toro’s vocal fireworks.

Lyric Theatre, QPAC
May 9, 2015

La Traviata is the first “big” Opera Q show of the year, but perhaps not as grand as we’re used to. Tickets are very cheap – as are some of the staging and costumes. This is however a necessary compromise: this most character-driven opera is steered brilliantly by the leading duo, Emma Pearson and particularly Aldo Di Toro, not by flashy outfits or set-changes. Those two are well worth the price of admission.

If you’ve never seen La Trav before, the story is pretty operatic stuff. Violetta is a high-class prostitute (“courtesan”). Everyone assumes that Alfredo Germont, who has fallen head-over-heels in love, is her latest scam. But this time it’s true love (also: opera)! Germont’s dad understandably, if fairly evilly, asks Violetta to break-off the relationship, assuming that his son has been had. It all ends badly: Violetta has Operitus, a dreaded disease with two symptoms: at first the polite cough, rapidly followed by death. Violetta is clearly in dire need of some universal health care. We know right from the start she’s deathly ill but nobody seems to do much about it. She’s actually surprised when a doctor even shows up to her death bed. Now you might think I’m ruining the plot, but people seldom go to opera for the plots.

Surprisingly, the opera subverted my expectations. Opera Queensland shows typically rely on their excellent female singers (not always the lead). Last year’s standouts Elena Xanathoudakis in Rigoletto and Hyeseoung Kwon in La Bohème spring to mind. Opera Q tends also tend towards staging that is at least lavish and spectacular (Perfect American) and sometimes even quietly genius (La Bohème). But for the first time in a long while it was a man who stole the show – the talented West Australian, Aldo Di Toro, as male lead Alfredo Germont. It’s not an easy role – vocally and dramatically demanding, lots of stage time and nasty high notes. The drinking song (Libiamo ne’ lieti calici) from the First Act is the big tenor aria from this opera – it’s the one you’ll know as the foreign tenor will often do it in a best-of-opera concert. So it’s a big ask, and he nailed it. I wanted to cheer.

I don’t want to knock Emma Pearson, though. She’s got a great set of pipes on her, even if some of the high notes were a bit questionable (the same cannot be said of Di Toro, who apparently has steel for vocal chords). Much of the burden of La Traviata falls on the two leads. The first act features a duet between the two (Un di, felice, eterea) which is the linchpin where Verdi really introduces the characters. Pearson is gentle but playful refusing Alfredo’s advances, he is sincere and optimistic and earnest. The two work very well together.

Jonathan Summers plays third fiddle as Alfredo’s dad Giorgio Germont. He’s the father figure for the fairly young cast, too, fresh from overseas and making his debut with Opera Q. He’s probably the loudest member of the cast, and looks pretty angry most of the time. A formidable singer, very dark tone, explosive bass notes, but a little wooden to look at.

As for the staging, it was a bit nothing. Women wear black dresses, men wear black tails and black patent leather – which makes building character a problem if nothing else. There are some military uniforms at one point, and a big half-cube object to act as backdrop for the action. But poor Violetta didn’t even get a bed to die in. Possibly the decision to do minimalist staging was a good one; removing distractions and so on. It’s good to see a company with a set of priorities. Cast is more important than staging.

There were also a few ensemble issues between the band and the stage, but it was at least an enthusiastic performance. Listen out for the trombone run at the very end of the show – the night I heard it they could have blown me off my seat. Chorus and minor roles excellent as ever – Jason Barry Smith stole at least two scenes. Stephen Beck also deserves a notable mention, in my favourite minor role – the Messenger.

Opera Queensland’s La Traviata plays at QPAC until May 16

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