La Traviata – the opera isn’t over until the frail lady sings (NI Opera in Grand Opera House until Saturday 17 September)

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The door to the circular ballroom opens and every head turns as a woman in a striking scarlet dress enters. Violetta is a Parisian escort – a “courtesan” in polite operatic parlance – and she is hosting a social evening to celebrate her return to good health. His current client, a possessive baron, is one of a host of glamorous women and men dressed in black. But when Alfredo arrives, Violetta is immediately in love with the handsome poet who, unbeknownst to her, visits her sickbed daily. Her only flaw is an interfering father who isn’t too amused that Violetta’s career is tarnishing her family’s supposed reputation and throwing a scurrilous wrench into romantic works. Can Violetta’s drive to put others first overcome the twin hurdles of patriarchal misogyny and a relapse of her life-threatening illness?

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata is a study in class and hypocrisy. It’s counter-cultural for 2022, not to mention 1853 when it premiered to a tough audience in Vienna. The heroine of the play, endowed with the greatest moral force, is Violetta, played with vigor by the soprano Siobhan Stagg. Rarely offstage during all four scenes, Stagg initially oozes confidence. Then, she’s forced to break off her romantic relationship for once and sacrifice her own desires to appease another man’s feelings, before mounting a passionate fightback against her biological clock.

Whether she’s the center of attention at a party or sweating in bed with tuberculosis, Stagg’s Violetta shows real strength of character alongside her soaring tunes and balanced duets with Alfredo. If Violetta turns heads, then Alfredo is a good match; her patent shoes are about the only thing that shines on stage. Noah Stewart brings poise, his fabulous tenor voice, commanding presence and excellent body language to Alfredo’s scenes with Violetta. Yuriy Yurchuk, of Ukrainian origin, mocks Giorgio, Alfredo’s father. Local baritone Seamus Brady stepped into the role of Baron Douphol with confidence and aplomb, although an additional threat could be added during the run.

The walls of Niall McKeever’s crucible set are distressed, the windows are stained, and what were once statues and sleek light fixtures are rather twisted and melted, hanging ominously from the wall, one with a chair impaled in its mess. Violetta’s financial poverty and well-being are pervasive, and the muted costume choices and harsh wigs amplify the sense of loss that hangs over this opera that really isn’t over until the frail lady sings.

Fifty players from the Ulster Orchestra fill the pit under the athletic baton of Rebecca Lang. Sitting in the middle of the front row provided me with an unexpected view of the upstairs/downstairs performance, watching the lively playing below the stage (including part of the choir arriving with tambourines for increase a song) along with cast executive Cameron Menzies’ freeze frame poses above their heads. It’s good to spot Clara Kerr among the flamenco dancers who bring color and movement after intermission before Doni Fierro struts around like a matador.

La Traviata is one of the most performed operas. Its plot is relatively simple to follow. Sung in Italian, English surtitles can be seen on either side of the stage. And the gaps between the acts are long enough to read into the synopsis to piece together the next stage of the story. Given NI Opera’s history of risk taking, the La Traviata sometimes feels quite subdued, without the brashness and shock of productions like Salome Where Turandot. Playing it safe artistically will be popular with local audiences who will flock to the Grand Opera House to enjoy talent excellence who come together to play, play, sing and create a production of this quality. However, this approach perhaps understates the wonderfully wicked sense of drama and pantomime that opera can evoke when the art form is taken to extremes.

Opera NI La Traviata will be back on stage in Grand Opera House on Tuesday 13, Thursday 15 and Saturday 17 September.

Photo credits: Philip Magowan and Neil Harrison

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