I attended the first night (18 May) of the production.
La traviata is a dramatic opera that deals ‘with real people and real emotions’, said the music director, Sam Evans, of Hampstead Garden Opera (HGO)’s new production of Verdi’s master opera. It is one of the most performed and has been in the operatic repertoire for more than 150 years. Yet the people who attended its premiere, at La Fenice (Venice) in 1853, did not approve. The censors felt the opera was too contemporary and requested it was set in the 1700s. But regardless of what time and place a director sets the opera, it is Verdi’s rich music and its lead characters which remain timeless.
HGO’s production director, Sophie Gilpin transports the world of our fallen woman to the 1960s: a time of sexual liberation. Verdi composed his opera loosely on Alexandre Dumas fil’s play (1853) about a Parisian courtesan who leads a life as a demi-monde, falls in love with a man above her social status and shortly dies of consumption. At Jacksons Lane’s stage, bring it forward 100 years later and, Violetta is an independent woman who chooses the life she wants to lead. In Gilpin’s re-imagining sex is not paid for; instead, a woman’s lifestyle is sponsored. The director takes a closer look at the ubiquitous sexual politics of the opera and spruces up the context for the audience to re-adjust their eyes and see a self-sufficient and free-spirited Violetta, from a different angle.
Anna Bonomelli designs the production using various parts and props. Each act has a different setting: an exciting outdoor party with sun lounges, Alfredo’s private photography studio and Violetta’s dimly-lit deathbed. (The cast assist in changing each scene.) The costumes aren’t exactly from the swinging sixties, yet the idealism of a sexual revolution exists. In the party scenes (act 1 and act 2), no one appears significantly wealthier than the other person, which is made more obvious in the original story, yet, from reading the programme notes, Gilpin raises a point on whether its female characters are fully aware of the way the men reduce and mock them. Who has more power? Is it those who sponsor? Or is it those who receive?
Sharing the intimate stage with incisive and spirited music director, Sam Evans, and a reduced orchestra of 12 vibrant and talented musicians, was Eleanor Ross (Violetta), Alex Aldren (Alfredo) and Lawrence Wallington (Germont).
Ross shined with effervescent energy and managed to sing as well as she can act. Her astonishing vocals took centre stage with confidence and assurance, while her Violetta succeeded in portraying fragility and an elegant nuance that touched the heart. Verdi’s vocal lines for Violetta are not easy to sing, yet Ross mustered the strength to do exactly that and more.
Alfredo was charmingly sung by Aldren. His voice is a pleasure in itself. He has a refined and polished voice, which works well for Jackson’s Lane’s small stage. Together with Ross, they make a convincing young pair.
In Gilpin’s staging, Alfredo’s character is a photographer whose father is a cabinet minister, seeking to sever his son’s tie to Violetta. Worried that her reputation may negatively influence his political endeavours, he demands she end her relationship with Alfredo to save the welfare of his daughter: Alfredo’s sister.
Undeniably Wallington is an attentive and impressive performer, as Germont, yet I was puzzled by his character’s motives. Traditionally Germont breaks the couple up for Alfredo’s sister, but in this production, we have a more politically motivated and manipulative Germont. I wasn’t entirely convinced it ran well with the final act or whether any of his pity for Violetta was genuine. Nonetheless, Wallington efforts as a singer are noteworthy, particularly in act 2 when he sings sensitively to Ross’s brokenhearted Violetta.
All of the devoted cast and chorus singers play an instrumental part in bringing the story of the fallen woman to focus. Although the narrative is slightly muddled in some segments, this was a wholeheartedly compelling performance. The central enjoyment of this production, though, is the intimate and skilful music-playing from the small orchestra, and Ross’s delicate and remarkable performance.
Hampstead Garden Opera’s is showing at Jacksons Lane (High Gate) until May 27. This cast is showing on 20, 23, 25 and 26 May (7.30pm). There is an alternative cast for dates in between. For information on all cast members, dates, tickets and bookings, please click here.
My performance included: Eleanor Ross, Alex Aldren, Lawrence Wallington, Emma Muir Smith. Carola Darwin. WeiHsi Hu. Jack Naismith, David Booth, Aleksi Koponen, Esme Bronwen Smith, Emma Charles, Rachel Duckett, Güler Özgencil and Harry Kersley.
I was given a press ticket to review the show.