Monday 3 November 2014

La Traviata in Leeds

Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta, Ji-Min Park as Alfredo and the Chorus of Opera North. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Hye-Youn Lee, Ji-Min Park.
Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Verdi La Traviata; Hye-Youn Lee, Ji-Min Park, Roland Wood, Opera North, dir. Alessandro Talevi, cond. Gianluca Marciano
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 1 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Vibrantly theatrical, stylish and youthful new production of Verdi's iconic opera.

Opera North's new production of Verdi's La Traviata, their first for ten years, capitalised on youth. Directed by the young director Alessandro Talevi, it featured soprano Hye-Youn Lee, making her Opera North debut, in the title role with Ji-Min Park (who sang Rodolfo in Opera North's La Boheme last season) as Alfredo, and Roland Wood as Giorgio Germont plus Peter Savidge, Daniel Norman, Louise Collett and Victoria Sharp. Talevi worked with his regular team Madeleine Boyd (designs) and Matthew Hasking (lighting) and Gianluca Marciano (still under 40 himself) conducted.

Talevi and Boyd set the work in the first decade of the 20th century. A period still glamorous, but with rather relaxed manners (though still conflicted attitudes to Les grandes horizontales) and certainly a great deal less fabric needed in the ladies' dresses. Boyd's set was based on a raised stage which allowed the party guest to recline and Violetta to remain bedridden, and still remain visible. Central in the raised stage was a further, higher platform which became variously a gaming table, jetty and Violetta's bed. Talevi used the various levels imaginatively, sometimes gathering the chorus behind the raised stage, so they were present but did not dominate. In the opening party, which was more of an orgy, having the party-goers reclining was dramatically convincing but also allowed the principals (standing) to be seen.
The backdrops were abstract and incorporated a circular motif through which, in the preludes to acts one and three, we saw a video depicting the cellular progress of the illness and graphic images of the insides f Violetta's lungs! But act two, scene two and act three were dominated by a huge clock face reminiscent of the Musee d'Orsay.

Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta, Ji-Min Park as Alfredo. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Hye-Youn Lee, Ji-Min Park. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
The production made extensive use of the excellent Opera North chorus. Seven of the solo roles (Annina, Flora, Grenvil, D'Obigny, Giuseppe, Messenger and Flora's servant) were, quite remarkably, cast from the Opera North chorus. And both party scenes gave the chorus plenty to do; the orgy at Violetta's party was probably one of the most dramatically convincing stage orgies that I have seen in recent years and the chorus was equally vivid at Flora's rather grander party.

Hye-Youn Lee made a poised and vibrant Violetta. She had a lyric voice with dramatic edge. She has sung Lucia di Lammermoor so act one of La Traviata seems to have held few terrors and she crowned the act with a high E flat. But she drew on reserves of strength and developed musically as the opera progressed. For the coloratura of Sempre libera her voice was perhaps a touch brittle, but this was dramatically convincing (Violetta is hardly relaxed at this point). In act two Hye-Youn Lee was poignant but still able to fill out the vocal lines. Dite all giovine was sung quietly and finely, and she died superbly. The whole final act had a sweeping dramatic arc to it which spoke of intelligent musicality.  She is still young and her performance was notable for it freshness. Her Violetta will surely develop and deepen, but this was still very satisfying performance.

Ji-Min Park was similarly youthful. Singing with a dark bronzed tone, his tenor had an admirably virile firmness and his steady demeanour complimented Hye-Young Lee's febrile nerviness. Ji-Min Park made a very personable Alfredo, rather young in both looks and diffident demeanour, but his voice was full of mature dark richness creating vibrant life in the music. His voice took a little while to settle, but from his act two solo his performance was superbly musical and highly involving. His was a very vivid stage performance and he was naturally expressive in his body language.

Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta, Roland Wood as Giorgio. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Hye-Youn Lee, Roland Wood. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Body language was something I noticed too with Roland Wood's very upright Giorgio Germont. Poke rigid at first, he relaxed to such an extent with Hye-Youn Lee's Violetta that you sensed an interest more than paternal. Whilst his embraces for Ji-Min Park's Alfredo were chilling. Vocally Wood's performance matched. Still relatively young, playing older characters comes with the territory for baritones. Wood incarnated Giorgio Germont convincingly vocally and physically. Very finely sung indeed, with a lovely sense of line, his scene with Violetta in act two was thrilling in the way the two artists interacted, This was real drama.

The remaining smaller roles were all convincingly incarnated and finely sung with Daniel Norman a suitably flamboyant Gastone and Dean Robinson a dignified Dr. Grenvil. Peter Savidge made a suitably uptight Baron Douphol. Louise Collett was characterful and sympathetic as Annina. Victoria Sharp as Flora and Nicholas Butterfield as Marquis d'Obigny were the prime actors in the Spanish entertainment in act two, scene two. Here, it was rather imaginatively turned into a re-enactment of Carmen.

Daniel Norman as Gastone (centre), Victoria Sharp as Flora Bervoix (top) and the Chorus of Opera North. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Daniel Norman, Victoria Sharp. Photo credit: Richard H Smith
Gianluca Marciano and the Opera North orchestra contributed strongly to the overall dramatic impulse and sense of vibrancy in the production. Marciano's tempos kept things moving, in line with the ethos of the production. But he and the orchestra were fine accompanists, making plenty for flexible space for the singers. This performance never felt driven.

Throughout the opera you sensed Talevi thinking about the problems, small and large, which staging La Traviata presents and coming up with imaginative and dramatic solutions. All welded into a striking whole, which combined vivid theatrical life with great beauty. This is an intelligent but highly revivabl production, and the old lady next to me had her handkerchiefs out by the end, which is always a good sign.

The production tours to Salford Quays, Newcastle and Nottingham, and returns in Spring 2015 with substantially the same cast but with Anna Jeruc-Kopec as Violetta, Stephen Gadd as Giorgio Germont and conducted by Olivier von Dohnanyi.
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