Out of the Shadows

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Remarkable revival: Rodula Gaitanou's production of Verdi's La Traviata is back at Opera Holland Park with the original cast on terrific form

Verdi: La traviata - Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata - Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

Verdi La Traviata; Lauren Fagan, Matteo Desole, Stephen Gadd, Laura Woods,Ellie Edmonds, Rodula Gaitanou, Matthew Kofi Waldren; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 June 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Cast,conductor and director return to La Traviata after three years, and its as powerful, intense and stylish as ever, if not more so

In 2018, Rodula Gaitanou directed a new production of Verdi's La traviata at Opera Holland Park in which lightening really did manage to strike twice, not only was the first night cast outstanding, with Lauren Fagan and Matteo Desole as Violetta and Alfredo [see my review], but the young artists performance, with Alison Langer and Stephen Aviss, managed to hit the spot too [see my review]. Now the company has brought the production back, with most singers returning to their roles and Gaitanou returning to direct. And yes, the magic was recaptured and more.

We caught Verdi's La traviata at Opera Holland Park on 11 June 2021, directed by Rodula Gaitanou with Lauren Fagan as Violetta, Matteo Desole as Alfredo, Stephen Gadd as Giorgio Germont, Laura Woods as Flora and Ellie Edmonds as Annina, with Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting City of London Sinfonia in Jonathan Lyness' reduced orchestration. Design was by Cordelia Chisholm, lighting by Simon Corder and movement by Steve Elias.

Verdi: La traviata - Laura Woods and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Two - Laura Woods and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

From the opening, the production placed us in the realm of Violetta's illness, the overwhelming sound of her difficulty breathing and during the orchestral prelude the sight of Fagan's Violetta being dressed by Annina (Allie Edmonds) and coughing up blood. Gaitanou did not labour the point, but she ensured that reality of Violetta's illness was a thread through the production. 19th century opera is not a naturalistic art form, and Gaitanou did not make the mistake of trying to make this realistic but the entire production was anchored in her wonderful eye for detail whether it was the establishment of the poor relations between Fagan's Violetta and Nicholas Garrett's Barone within the busy chaos of of the Act One party, or Edmonds' Annina facing down Stephen Gadd's Giorgio Germont at the Act Two party, a moment which told even more because Gadd is so much taller than Edmonds.

It is this welter of character and detail which allowed Gaitanou to tell the story and enabled us to invest in the characters. The drama unfolded with the sort of painful intensity which made you understand why the drama still feels so modern, and why directors are often keen to update it. But Violetta's situation is very particular, very 19th century, and Gaitanou anchors this with the lovely detail, hats, gloves and all. And she solves the Giorgio Germont Act Two party problem quite neatly; this Germont was a man of his time, clearly staying at a good, sensible hotel and after leaving Violetta and Alfredo he goes back and changes. Stephen Gadd's appearance in Act Two, scene two is in full evening dress, no question.

But Verdi's music is not all modern, in Acts One and Two he continues to use traditional forms including the double aria and the performances respected this. Under Waldren's sympathetic direction the music was always stylish and never pushed out of shape. 

Verdi: La traviata - Lauren Fagan, Ellie Edmonds - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Two - Lauren Fagan, Ellie Edmonds - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

There is a thread of steel running through Lauren Fagan's voice which she used admirably as the evening progressed to give intensity to Violetta's music. In Act One, Fagan sang the notorious fioriture with a nice ease across her complete range, bringing intensity to the frantic passages yet not quite veering into neurosis. In Act Two, notably the great scene with Gadd's Germont, she gave as good as she got yet desperation also got the better of her. It is in Act Three that Verdi abandoned traditional forms, Violetta's death scene was without precedent, and Fagan brought a lovely freedom to it without ever trying to make the music something it isn't. This was a consummate performance which has deepened in intensity without losing any of the exuberance since 2018. 

Matteo Desole made Alfredo naive and ardent, yet interesting and not a dull soul. His little boy lost at the Act One party was superb, but combined with Desole's thrilling lyric tenor. His voice has a fine ping to it and a lovely freedom across the range, allied to a willingness to sing quietly and a personable stage presence and he made a near ideal Alfredo. Like Fagan's Violetta, Desole's Alfredo was on a journey and his performance built and developed through the whole evening. There was a sharpness in his reaction to his father and in his behaviour at the party in Act Two. But in Act Three, in one moving moment you could feel him grow up. For this revival, Gaitanou had brought the final scene onto the fore-stage in front of the audience's eyes. Desole's Alfredo rushed on stage and was visibly shocked at the state of Violetta, and after their initial greeting he turned away, visibly growing up in a minute, stared out at the audience and launched the duet 'Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo' in the clear knowledge that this was fantasy, it would never happen.

Verdi: La traviata - Matteo Desole and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Two - Matteo Desole and chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

It is a tribute to Stephen Gadd's performance as Giorgio Germont that we understand and feel sympathy for him. During Gadd's Act Two scene with Fagan's Violetta we could feel the way that the two were from different worlds, Germont simply did not understand Violetta's world of intense feeling and love. Such things are discountable, what counts is family and proper behaviour.  And money, this Germont had a hint of a nouveau riche with his willingness to use money to solve everything. And I think it is a tribute to the strength, intensity and sheer realism of Gadd's Germont that afterwards we found ourselves wondering what Madame Germont was like, was she around, was she dead?

This wonderfully balance trio of performances was anchored by some strong ensemble contributions from the whole company. Laura Woods was a warm and sympathetic Flora. Ellie Edmonds made Annina a real character, inhabiting the whole opera, a fierce mother-hen figure whom you would never cross and who supported Violetta no matter what. Nicholas Garrett was a complete Barone Douphol, drawing a strong thread of character through the opera, whilst Mike Bradley and David Stephenson brought plenty of differentiating difference to Gastone and the Marchese. Henry Grant Kerswell established Dottore Grenvil as being in love with Violetta from the beginning which made sense of his behaviour in Act Three. Robert Jenkins and Alistair Sutherland were neat cameos as Giuseppe and Commissioner, whilst Ian Massa-Harris managed to not steal the show as Flora's servant.

Verdi: La traviata - Stephen Gadd - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Three - Stephen Gadd - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

The chorus has plenty to do here, two parties and an Act Three eruption which had a real dramatic edge to it. The twenty singers worked hard, there was plenty of music and movement (no separate movement group here), with vivid individual characters at the parties. The Act Two fortune telling/gypsy/matador moments were imaginatively done without ever threatening to overbalance the shape of the act. And always, a vivid attention to music, detail and character.

In the pit, City of London Sinfonia were somewhat reduced, but that didn't seem to matter. They and Waldren produced full-fat feeling music even if technically the music was low-fat. I continue to enjoy Waldren's way with this music, he allows the singers time without over indulging and keeps the pulse. These are performances which allow for Verdi's remarkable modernism but which acknowledge his debt to his predecessors.

There is much more to this opera than simply making us burst into tears at the end. But it is a tribute to the production's musical values and the way it made us really invest in the characters when this happens. Remarkably, revived with the same cast this La Traviata is once again a profoundly satisfying and well balanced evening.

Verdi: La traviata - chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Verdi: La traviata, Act Three - chorus - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)


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