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30 April, 2012

Violetta expires after Act I, not III. But the show goes on!

La Traviata at the Met - Two Violettas for the price of one.  8.30pm Sat 21st April 2012.  Re-visited on Wednesday 25th April. 

Dear Colleagues,
This Salzburg production by Willy Decker promised much and delivered more at the Met.  Already known as the clock Traviata, Dr Grenvil lurks throughout the evening as if a portent of death.  The clock-face itself is used in many ways during the evening.  Normally just marking the minutes to midnight, its hands spin at one stage and are stopped by a distressed soprano as if to delay the inevitable while she has a good time.  The hands are removed in another instance and used by a picador in the bull fight scene.  The clock face becomes a roulette table and finally the death bed. 

On the first night under maestro Steven White Natalie Dessay sounded ill at ease, especially in the lower register which at times was almost inaudible.  She only lasted to the end of Sempre libera (leaving out the unwritten E flat) and was replaced by Hei-Kyung Hong for the remainder of the opera.  The latter was excellent and she received a generous and well deserved ovation.  By the Wednesday performance Ms Dessay was back in good voice although it is hard to think that this is her ideal role. 

The real star of the night was Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose performance was a lesson in deportment and elegance … and who sang superbly.  A bit like Sherrill Milnes at his peak, he is now a veritable vocal institution.  On both the nights I attended there was applause even before he started singing.  In the Saturday performance under maestro White he took some alternative vocal options in the recitatives, using grace notes, alternative high notes, appoggiaturas and other ornaments these were all omitted on the Wednesday, perhaps because of the return of chief conductor Fabio Luisi to the podium.  At all times Mr Hvorostovsky was completely in control and all the options were tasteful and relatively minor.  He not only has the vocal line fully in the voice but he also takes the drama seriously and is as credible in the role as one could imagine.  Every movement, from his feet to his hands, was carefully calculated as if it were individually choreographed for total realism. 

His main aria, Di Provenza il mar il suol was unhurried and immensely beautiful.  Mr Hvorostovsky also sang the cabaletta following and proved to me for the first time that it DOES fit in the score.  Many serious opera buffs say this was one of Verdi's few mistakes.  Personally, I love it.  But the difference here was that the Met star sang it legato and not as a syncopated canter that others often do.  He makes this rather unusual piece perfectly in character right before the end of the scene which otherwise ends abruptly with Alfredo finding the invitation and declaring his intention to seek revenge at the Paris party. 

Tenor Matthew Polenzani is more than adequate as Alfredo, a role which veteran singer Vinson Cole calls a 'killer'.  Polenzani has a large voice which could easily lose control yet he schools the lines, colouring virtually every note individually using an elegant innate musicality.  After a lovely cabaletta 'O mio rimorso' he also pulled off the singular feat of an exposed, extended terminal high C.  For stage presence he could take some lessons from the baritone, but so could all opera singers.  I cannot imagine anyone looking more comfortable, confident and natural on stage than Mr Hvorostovsky. 

Mr Deckers production is now well known from DVD's, cinema and possibly television.  Some like it, some dont.  But if you cannot have the old Met Traviata production which was so lavish and grand then this is a very different and valid interpretation.  It breaks rules, pushes boundaries and can claim to have various levels of meaning with the giant clock, ever-present doctor Grenvil character, red dress, red shoes and unisex chorus.  For the second act there was the very clever use of bolts of highly coloured, black background, floral fabrics and projections above the curved set.  The lovers were both in patterned floral dressing gowns to match the other fabrics.  Scene two continues immediately without a pause as does the final act, a death scene starting in the casino.  It was rather disconcerting that a stage full of people slowly emptied by slow-shuffling backwards as the music for the next act progressed in the pit.  One felt concerned that someone would fall over and it served little dramatic purpose to my mind. 

Decker includes Violetta in the beginning of Act II using a hide-and-seek segment with Alfredo, causing some incongruity with the libretto but this is the theater!  Some of the translations were changed to suit the production: ‘Did you need me?’ sings Annina, played by Maria Zifchak, rather than ‘Did you call me?’ (there was no bell as is traditional).  As the happy rustic affair sours with the arrival of Alfredos father the coloured fabrics are pulled off the white sofas.  Likewise, the floral projection above turns gradually to monochrome. 

The enormous hyperbolic curved set restricts the possible movements to a single entrance on the left and a gallery above the dip of the hyperbola.  There is also a huge curved bench reminiscent of the whispering gallery in St Pauls cathedral in London.  And true to form, at sensitive spots in this amphitheatre, there is accentuation of the voices through focused reflection of the sound into the auditorium.  On the whole it was all rather beautiful and the performances were highly enjoyable for this patron. 

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (currently in the middle of Ring Cycle 2 at the Met along with over 100 other Aussies!)

06 April, 2012

La Traviata on Sydney Harbour.

La Traviata at Mrs Macquarie’s Point on Sydney Harbour.
Wednesday 4th April 2012, 7.30pm

Dear Colleagues,

This was an unforgettable experience. After rubbishing the idea previously I weakened on hearing numerous positive reviews and decided to experience the event myself. Every aspect was enjoyable except for the ludicrous price of food and drink (eg. $15 for two tiny pieces of ordinary cheese with crackers, soft nuts, grapes and raisins). Also the hot food stopped at 7.30 and did not reopen for the single long intermission … very odd when all the eating venues were well set up and in view of the entire city, harbour, stars and all. For those who arrived late and hungry, cold pasta and rice dishes looked unappealing indeed despite the high price. These reservations notwithstanding, the site staff members were all extremely polite and obliging from box office to catering and security.

The opera was a polished piece of tasteful, novel theatre. Despite the numerous gimmicks this was still Verdi’s La Traviata. The stage was a large rectangle, raked diagonally with one low corner joining the shore and walkway. Deep right angled steps from the corners made for a nearly flat area amidships. The edges were cleverly lit by projections to represent a huge art nouveau picture frame in which the drama took place. An acquaintance described it as being like an Escher picture with intriguing perspective - I can only agree. One of the rear banks of steps hinged outward to reveal or stow the various enormous stage items as needed.

We were privileged to hear a magnificent cast headed by Emma Matthews as Violetta, Jonathan Summers as Germont senior and Gianluca Terranova as Alfredo. Each pulled operatic magic out of the bag and, along with excellent minor characters (John Boulton-Wood should be singled out for praise), chorus, dancers, actors and orchestra/conductor gave us art of a very high standard. The only thing lost to the open air venue was the direct sound of the voices and instruments which of necessity was amplified. Yet the modern sound system seemed immediate and sympathetic. At one stage I thought I heard the rattle of a train on the harbour bridge. A couple of times the wake of the Manly Ferry caused a small noise on the huge quadrangular pontoon holding the stage and orchestra. Otherwise it was a blemish-free performance with the only other distractions being city and sky.

Ms Matthews has a glorious coloratura voice in the theatre and amplification seemed to accentuate her lower register making it sound somewhat different but in no way inferior. Mr Summers, on the other hand, sounded exactly the same to me on the loud speakers as he does in the opera house - always a satisfying and distinguished delivery. Mr Terranova was new to me so I cannot comment on his voice in the flesh … his is a pleasing and even lyric tenor voice with an upper extension facility. He also acted well and I would hope to hear him again in the theatre.

It was a perfect night with Venus, Sirius, Orion and a near full moon above Sydney Harbour without wind or cloud. Gemini and Mars were also clearly visible. The beautiful helio Pleiades were just washed out by the city lights, as were a lot of inhibitions on the night. The congenial crowd arrived early and milled around eating and drinking in front of perhaps the world’s best urban view with the city skyline, opera house and harbour bridge dead front in the dusk.

There was a brief fireworks display from four off-shore barges following the brindisi ‘Libiamo’, often called the drinking song. Then we had a full-throated and full throttle ‘E strano … Ah forse lui … Sempre libera’ from Ms Matthews … it was to rival any I have heard. For the first time to my knowledge Ms Zambello had the maid stay on stage for the first part of the ‘solo’ scene, to nice effect. Now alone, Ms Matthews sang her final cadenza, including extended E-flat, in a capsule suspended below an enormous, gaudy and centrally placed chandelier. Her histrionics were perfect for the role, including the smashed wine glass with all it represents. The chandelier dominated proceedings and was a publicity coup for the company as it was floated up the harbour a few weeks ago and the project was aired on all the main TV news programs, print and electronic media.

Although it takes place some months later and far away from Paris, Act II proceeded without a break. So without any breathing space, this was yet another challenge for the cast which alternates each night. On stage the long party table was replaced by a stretch-chesterfield in silver upholstery as the main prop (also gaudy). The original lacks the dramatic unities, so why stop now?

We were not disappointed with the Italian tenor Mr Terranova who did an excellent job dramatically and vocally in both ‘De mei bollenti spiriti’ and the colossal cabaletta ‘Oh mio rimorso’ with terminal high note above a C as clear and exciting as it could have been. The amplification worked without a hitch, using concealed body microphones.

Mr Summers showed what a 'pro' he is at 65 years of age, using his creamy baritone voice and warm understated dramatic qualities to perfection. I was not sure if his words were all correct in ‘Di provenza il mar il suol’ but his delivery was superb. I don’t think there could have been a prompter on the enormous stage. The following cabaletta was left out and the act ended precipitously as a result. Purists might be pleased but I was annoyed as I love this oddly syncopated piece. Verdi knew what he was doing in my view, although others disagree. Continuing the Olympian record breakers, Ms Matthews hit a phenomenal and shattering high E-flat at the end of the casino scene. This was unwritten and probably inappropriate as the character is meant to have fainted at this stage and is hardly dominating proceedings … but like the Maria Callas Mexican Aida, to hell with good taste … it was one of the most exciting things I have ever heard in opera.

The conductor was projected onto a screen in the middle of the large ‘grandstand’ we were sitting on. He and his orchestra were out of sight and presumably somewhere beneath the floating stage in what would have been steerage class in another era.

The ballet was an excellent pink and grey mock bullfight. What was NOT traditional was that the chief and successful matador turned out to be a woman, revealed only after she had killer the bull! Just another of the many clever touches from Francesca Zambello and her brilliant production team. Design was by Brian Thomson and costumes by Tess Schofield.

The death scene was touching in all but the tasteless lone firework as our heroine perished.

An extraordinary and memorable evening on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour. A crazy gamble by the opera company, but one which thus far seems to be paying off. I was told that Friday, Saturday and Sunday were jam packed but our night had an entire flank of seats empty (one sixth of the audience). I expect this will still be a major profit item for the company.

Comments by Andrew Byrne.