Traviata is a work that fits the OperaUpClose model perfectly – one or two big party scenes excepted, it is primarily a series of duets and trios. In this well judged adaptation by Robin Norton-Hale, the action is stripped down to a setting that involves five singers and three instrumentalists – pianist, cellist, and clarinettist. Despite these self-imposed limitations, what the admirable OperaUpClose team have achieved is a very moving and dramatically cogent version of Traviata.
The crucial confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo’s father is sung brilliantly and the emotional torment of Violetta is sharper than ever. And even the big party numbers are delivered in miraculous style by the five singers – the wonderful choral climax at the end of Act 2 has never sounded better.
The original plot is simple – beautiful courtesan, Violetta, falls in love with naïve admirer Alfredo. They retire to the country to set up home together, but Alfredo’s father intervenes to bully and cajole Violetta to give up Alfredo for the sake of the reputation of his family. She eventually gives in and leaves Alfredo, who lashes out in his despair. They are re-united at the last, but in tragic circumstances.
In this adaptation, the drama is relocated to 1920s America. Alfredo’s father is a politician facing re-election and is introduced as a friend of the Baron, Violetta’s “protector” and as a participant in the demi-monde parties thrown by Violetta and Flora, her best friend. This means that the hypocrisy of his later emotional blackmail of Violetta is all the more pointed. In a second major plot change, the role of Annina, Violetta’s servant, is lost, but this means that in the final Act it is Flora who looks after the sick Violetta and this too works very well.
On press night Louisa Tee sang Violetta – she is simply superb. A singer’s technique is very exposed in a small space like the Soho theatre – Tee is totally on top of the role. Her Alfredo, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter, is almost as good despite the handicap of looking a bit like Harry Potter. His first act declaration of his love was very moving. Flora McIntosh as Flora and Christopher Jacklin as the Baron are excellent, but the revelation of the evening is James Harrison in the role of Germont. His forceful baritone is a delight to listen to and the crucial arias in the second act, firstly as he manipulates Violetta into sacrificing her happiness and then as he tries to lure Alfredo back to the clutches of his bourgeois family, are delivered with total control, musically and dramatically.
The setting is simple but effective – one set is transformed from party venue to country cottage to sickroom by the moving of furniture and the drawing of curtains by the singers and by lighting changes.
The three instrumentalists are placed at the back of the left side of the stage and Harry Blake’s orchestration is masterly – one does miss the full Verdian orchestral sound now and again but very rarely. And the facts that the words are clear and that the audience is so close to the excellent singers gives an impact to Verdi’s wonderful music that is often missing in a big opera house.
This is a treat not to be missed – whether you are already a fan of Traviata or whether you are new to opera.