It’s hard to come to a conclusion about a production with such incredible strengths and such embarrassing weaknesses.
Remember Oscar-winning Russel Crowe croaking his way painfully through Les Miserables? Unfortunately, award winning tenor Robin Bailey does something similar in his performance as Alfredo, desperately straining to reach the high notes only to be drowned out by his glorious co-star, Louisa Tee (Violetta).
Her acting background is perfect for OperaUpClose. The intimacy of the Tricycle theatre means the stylised acting of traditional opera would be overblown. Tee has a riveting emotional subtlety which complements her rich voice and astounding range. Her solo arias are searingly beautiful.
The same of course, cannot be said for some of her duets. She is a far stronger performer than the rest of the cast, although they do a good job, and this discrepancy leaves the performance imbalanced.
This leads me to issue number two: why is the opera is set in 1920s America? Don’t get me wrong, I love the decadence of the set and the stunning costumes. However, the transition between American recitative accents and English singing ones is awkward and jolts our suspension of disbelief. This is also true of some of the dialogue, which includes mention of ‘the trenches’, ‘dollars’ and a ‘lying bitch’. I’m not against updating a performance – in fact, Verdi had wanted to set the original in his own period, not 1700 as he was forced to do. No, I’m concerned with making changes convincing and I’m not sure they are.
Yes, the music translates wonderfully to a three-piece ‘orchestra’ of clarinet, cello and piano. Yes, the costumes, setting and Tee are fantastic. But a performance should highlight the talents of the lead singer, not depend on them. So if by choosing three stars it seems a bit like I’m sitting on the fence, then it is because the production is both better and worse than it could have been.