Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Orchestration: Harry Blake
Director/English version: Robin Norton-Hale
Musical Director: Elspeth Wilkes
Set Designer: Katie Bellman
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The question is, “Can you watch OperaUpClose from Row J?” CAST’s first venture into full-length opera was an undoubted success in audience attendance and enthusiasm, but OperaUpClose’s company style, originally formed in the 35-seat Cock Tavern Theatre, had problems translating to the CAST’s 620-seat auditorium.
Cutting La Traviata down to five singers and three instrumentalists was bound to involve losses, but in a setting like the King’s Head Theatre, where this production originated in 2013, there were likely to be gains, too: intimacy, certainly, perhaps greater emotional truth and involvement with the characters. By and large, on a sizeable stage, with a pleasantly serviceable single set (by Katie Bellman), these gains did not materialise: from Row J the singers seemed to do little to engage the audience. Nobody wants to see a return to old-style semaphoring in opera acting, but there’s still a need to externalise emotions.
Robin Norton-Hale’s new English version was cleverly done, conflating the supporting parts into one female (Flora) and one male (The Baron), doubling with Doctor Grenvil. The updating to 1920s America enabled Germont, a solidly respectable bourgeois in Verdi, to become a crooked politician and thus boost the thin ranks of party goers before lecturing the “fallen woman” Violetta on the sacredness of his family’s honour. Rather neatly he now had an extra reason for asking Violetta to give up his son: not only his daughter’s fine marriage but his own need to get re-elected. In those days, apparently, politicians had to avoid unseemly connections.
A major problem with the reduced text showed up in the performance of Rosie Middleton as Flora, a combination of Flora Bervoix, Violetta’s high society friend, and Annina, Violetta’s servant, two totally different characters. Middleton (or Norton-Hale as director) opted to develop neither of them. Dario Dugandzic had a more plausible task: his contrasted characters, Baron and Doctor, remained separate. Even so, his Baron, though well sung, made little impact as a gang boss.
In the early stages, singers sounded under some strain as they probed the acoustics of the theatre, but Elinor Jane Moran settled to an elegantly sung Violetta, with beautiful tone and the ability to spin long lines with fluency. If there was little projection of character, she was a pleasure to listen to. Philip Lee (Alfredo) proved an audience favourite, probably because of the commitment of his singing and acting, but his singing, mostly staccato, displayed little lyricism. The most successful scene of the evening was the great Act 2 confrontation between Moran’s Violetta and Germont who was sung with taste, precision and impeccable diction by Andrew Mayor.
And then there was Harry Blake’s reduction of the score for piano, cello and clarinet, rather grandly called an “orchestration”. It was skilfully done and all three musicians played impeccably, with Sarah Douglas’ clarinet a frequent delight. However, the orchestra is a major force in La Traviata and climaxes were lost. Again, sitting close to the musicians in a small space would have been different; here, with the musicians screened off upstage, what should have been the massive surge of the orchestra on Violetta’s death savoured of the Palm Court.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed