Monday, 2 June 2014

La Traviata at Grange Park Opera

Grange Park Opera - Verdi:La Traviata act one, with Claire Rutter - photo credit Robert Workman
Claire Rutter in act one of La Traviata photo Robert Workman
Verdi La Traviata: Claire Rutter, Marco Panuccio, Damiano Salerno, Gianluca Marciano: Grange Park Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 31 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Stylishly glamorous and moving new production of Verdi's classic

Grange Park Opera's 2014 season opened on 30 May 2014 (with Peter Grimes), their second production of the season was Verdi's La Traviata (31 May 2014). Lindsay Posner's new glamorous new production set in 1950's Hollywood starred Claire Rutter as Violetta, Marco Panuccio as Alfredo, Damiano Salerno as Giorgo Germont with Gianluca Marciano conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, which was making its debut in the pit at Grange Park.

For such a popular opera Verdi's La Traviata presents some interesting challenges. Verdi wanted a contemporary setting for his opera so the piece acted as an examination of modern society, but when it was premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1853 censors forced the production to be in the past. Changes in mores and attitudes have made it increasingly difficult to place the opera convincingly in a modern setting. Additionally the title role itself is notorious, almost requiring a different soprano in each act. Violetta must dazzle in her coloratura in act one, but still have enough power and intensity for the final act. The role shows Verdi's genius for taking elements from his predecessors and reworking them to his own dramatic ends. For instance his use of coloratura not as a dramatic style but as part of his characterisation of Violetta.

Violetta is a role that Claire Rutter has sung regularly but since she first worked on it with Ileana Cotrubas, Rutter has developed her repertoire venturing Turandot and Sieglinde whilst adding dramatic bel canto roles such as Bellini's Elvira and Norma. I can think of few sopranos today who could sing all three acts with such musicality, giving us a top E flat at the end of act one, and musically dramatic verity in act three.

Richard Hudson's designs were simply stunning. The whole production was in black and white, perhaps to evoke black and white Hollywood films but to me it brought back memories of Visconti's black and white Aubrey Beardsley production at Covent Garden.

Claire Rutter in act one of La Traviata photo Robert Workman
Claire Rutter in act one of La Traviata photo Robert Workman
The curtain opened on a glamorous poolside bar, with the Hollywood hills in the background. The basic triangular shape of the platform (common to all three acts) gave plenty of scope for entrances and exits in the party scenes. Violetta and Alfredo's villa in act two was in the desert, the backdrop now a rocky desert landscape, the stage just set with a table and a fence. Flora's party was another glamorous interior whilst the final act was stark, just a white bed on a white floor against a black backdrop.

Not everything worked. There was a titter for the semi-naked posing men by the poolside when the curtain went up on act one, and the men's Spanish style costumes at Flora's party were profoundly unflattering. These are relatively minor points in a production which was blessedly straightforward, lacking in directorial pensées and full of very strong personen-regie.

The drama started from the first note of the prelude, with Rutter's Violetta popping pills and drinking cocktails at the bar.

Perhaps because Grange Park Opera's stage is relatively small, with a chorus to match, act one's party scene was one of the most effective that I have seen. You felt that this was a group of people enjoying themselves and rarely did you sense the hand of the director worrying about logistics, how to get people from A to B.

Rutter's Violetta had an underlying nervous edge to her, a slightly maturer Violetta aware that her life as a party girl was limited. There was an element of desperation in her enjoyment and a nice uncertainty to her reception of Marco Panuccio's Alfredo.

The Brindisi highlighted a difference in approach between Panuccio and Rutter. Despite her moving towards more dramatic roles, Rutter thankfully remains a bel canto singer who is secure in her use of the technique to articulate a role. Whereas Panuccio seemed to come from a more Verismo style, creating a richly thrilling sound (albeit with some tightness at the top) and a vibrant performance but lacking Rutter's sophistication in the fioriture and phrasing.

Panuccio's Alfredo was delightfully out of his depth at the party, there was a lovely moment after his introduction to Violetta when Panuccio sat down, a little boy lost as the party swirled around him. He and Rutter made a strong pairing in the scene when she gives him the flower. Afterwards the desperation in Rutter's 'Sempre libera' was made physically apparent by her intake of pills and alcohol (though there was a little too much stage business here). Rutter demonstrated in masterly fashion how to sing the coloratura and to use it for dramatic purposes. And we were treated to the top E flat (one of a number of lovely acuti Rutter gave us).

The production had one interval, after act two scene one, so that we ran on to the scene in Alfredo and Violetta's villa, here in the desert. Having Panuccio striding on in cowboy boots and stetson was, I think, a mistake and the setting was a little dramatically unconvincing. Panuccio was vibrantly ardent in his aria, making Alfredo seem less of an idiot than usual.

The scene between Violetta and Giorgio Germont (Damiano Salerno) was one of the most beautifully sung accounts that I have heard in a long time. Both singers had a finely musical approach to the scene, with a lovely feel for Verdi's line. Rutter was profoundly affecting as Violetta, her performance varying from a strongly sung opening to a magical 'Dite alla giovine'.

Salerno was a highly sympathetic Germont, perhaps too much so. His fine grained performance seemed to indicate a more softer edged personality than usual, without a sense of steel. Whilst I enjoyed the way he sang, and the lovely freedom to his upper register, I would have liked more of a sense of the martinet which surely makes more dramatic sense.

Grange Park Opera - Verdi La Traviata Act 2 - Photo Credit Robert Workman
La Traviata Act two, scene two with ensemble and Olivia Ray
Photo Robert Workman

At Flora's party the drama really began to tell. Rutter's reserves of strength showed here and both she and Panuccio matched each other for their combination of drama and musicality. The whole act positively thrummed with drama. As I have said the matador costumes for the men were a mistake, but Posner's staging and Nikki Wollaston's choreography were vividly involving without ever letting up the tension.

The final act's austere design placed all emphasis on Rutter's Violetta and she did not disappoint, giving us a wonderful sense of well supported line with a feeling of powerful emotions. She was clearly ill but without that sense of ham which can creep in. She was matched here by Panuccio who gave a dramatically vibrant performance, producing some lovely hushed tones in his duets with Rutter. All in all, a stunning and profoundly satisfying conclusion to a very stylish production.

All the smaller roles were strongly taken, many by members of the Grange Park Opera ensemble. One of the virtues of the production was the naturally detailed feel to the characters as individuals. Olivia Ray made a glamorous Flora, a tall blond foil to Rutter's dark Violetta. Alberto Sousa turned the small role of Gaston into a significant character. Timothy Dawkins was an impressively grim Baron, quite chilling in the scene at Flora's party. Christopher Jacklin was the Marquis, Matthew Stiff was a very upright but sensitive Grenvil, Sylvie Bedouelle was Amina and Jorge Navarro-Colorado was Giuseppe. The dancers were Paul Chantrey and Rae Piper.

In the pit the BBC Concert Orchestra were on impressive form, providing sympathetic accompaniment as well as some lovely solo moments. Under Gianluca Marciano's watchful direction the results had a nice fluidity and flexibility. Marciano ensured that the performance flowed, with nice space for the soloists without being self indulgent.

In terms of numbers on stage, this was probably one of the smallest scale productions that I have seen in recent years. But thanks to fine performances it never felt underpowered, quite the opposite. The detailed work the Lindsay Posner had clearly put in with Claire Rutter, Marco Panuccio, Damiano Salerno and the ensemble paid immense dividends in the small theatre giving us a vivid, finely sung performance, naturally and sympathetically paced by Gianluca Marciano.

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