Monday 9 August 2021

Nevill Holt Opera gives us a vividly theatrical but musically strong account of Verdi's La Traviata in its new outdoor theatre

Verdi: La traviata - Annabel Kennedy and NHO Chorus - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Verdi: La traviata - Annabel Kennedy and NHO Chorus - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Verdi La Traviata; Susana Gaspar, Luis Gomes, Michel de Souza, dir: Jamie Manton, Manchester Camerata, cond: Nicholas Chalmers; Nevill Holt Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A performance which vividly filled the outdoor auditorium without sacrificing the intimacy of Verdi's opera, allied to a strongly musical performance

Nevill Holt Opera planned to perform Verdi's La traviata and Mozart's Don Giovanni in their award-winning new theatre (which opened in 2018) for the 2020 season. 2021 sees the company finally performing these operas but not in the theatre which is built into the court-yard of Nevill Holt Hall's historic stable block, but in a temporary outdoor space which has enabled the company to perform safely to large audiences. The temporary theatre places the orchestra under cover, with the audience in stands surrounding the central acting area. Some audience areas are covered, some not and there is an area for those happy to sit on the ground. The theatre's increase in capacity (over 600 as opposed to the main theatre's 400) has meant that the company has been able to offer affordable ticket prices with free seats to the under 18s. Like many groups that have had to use imagination when it came to continuing to work during the pandemic, you feel that the discoveries made by the company during this season will have an impact on future seasons.

Perhaps Verdi's La traviata would not be the ideal choice of opera for performance outdoors in what was effectively a small stadium, but Jamie Manton's production for Nevill Holt Opera (which we caught on 10 August 2021) brilliantly energised the whole acting area without ever losing the opera's intimate focus on the leading character. Susana Gaspar was Violetta with Luis Gomes as Alfredo and Michel de Souza as Giorgo Germont, plus Philippa Boyle as Annina and Annabel Kennedy as Flora. Nicholas Chalmers (artistic director of Nevill Holt Opera) conducted the Manchester Camerata. Designs were by Camilla Clarke with movement by Clara Bajado.

Verdi: La traviata - Luis Gomes, Susana Gaspar - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Verdi: La traviata - Luis Gomes, Susana Gaspar - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)

The central acting area, raised and covered in grass, featured a large structure which was part bar, part fountain, part podium. This was where Susana Gaspar's Violetta greeted her guests at the opera's opening and this was where she and Luis Gomes' Alfredo reunited at the end of the opera. Manton, with movement director Clara Bajado, used the ensemble to people the stage filling the space with movement which complemented the action without pulling focus, and we had spectators for Violetta's Act One finale and for her death. This Violetta very much lived her life in public, and show was essential to her nature; Gaspar sported a series of remarkable candyfloss coloured wigs and only at a couple of key moments did we see her with her natural, dark-coloured hair.

The production was modern dress, and the setting was amongst the glossy, party people with guests at the Act One party in fancy dress; for the Act Two party the designs thankfully played down the gypsy/matador element. Dress was used also to contrast Violetta and her friends with Alfredo and his country gentleman father.

A big factor in the musical success of the performance was the sound-system used, so that the amplified sound tracked the singers and the whole felt, if not quite natural, very realistic. After a few minutes adjustment, you could forget that you were not listening to unamplified audio.

Susana Gaspar gave a confident performance as Violetta, clearly demonstrating the technical equipment to deal with all three acts. This Violetta had a strength running through her whether it be singing her Act One coloratura or dealing with Michel de Souza's upright Giorgio in Act Two. But we sensed that much of this was a mask, in the Act One finale this slipped and throughout Act Two Gaspar made us sense Violetta's uncertainly in Alfredo and Giorgio's world. Despite the distance between them and the open spaces, Gaspar and De Souza made their scene a strong point, with Gaspar singing with beautifully intimate tone for 'Dite all giovine', something she continued over to Act Three's 'Addio, del passato' leading to a surprisingly moving death scene.

Verdi: La traviata - Zahid Siddiqui, Luis Gomes - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Verdi: La traviata - Zahid Siddiqui, Luis Gomes - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Luis Gomes' made Alfredo a glorious fish out of water in Act One, his behaviour for once not naive but simply unfamiliar with this strange territory. The way he remained almost rooted to the spot for the first part of Act One spoke volumes. This was an ardent, musical performance where Gomes' had us rooting for Alfredo rather than wanting to slap him. Gomes and Gaspar made a very strong pairing, creating electricity despite the distances between them. Similarly, Gomes reaction to his father was vivid.

Michel de Souza was a very dignified Giorgio, a country gent whose behaviour was proper if unbending, yet he displayed a sympathy to Gaspar's Violetta and sang with a finely shaped sense of line. 

All three principals created performances which filled the space, yet also engaging us with a remarkable degree of intimacy. They were supported by an array of strong performances, with Philippa Boyle as a remarkably trenchant Annina and Annabel Kennedy as a party-girl Flora, plus Simon Grange as the Marchese, Robert Garland as the Barone, Hugo Herman-Wilson as Grenvil, Robin Bailey as Gastone, Zahid Siddiqui as Giuseppe, and Malachy Frame as the messenger, each making the most of their moment and each highly coloured and nicely differentiated. 

Verdi: La traviata - Michel de Souza, Susana Gaspar - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Verdi: La traviata - Michel de Souza, Susana Gaspar - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)

Manton introduced one extra element which, for me, did not quite gel. There was a young child, present at the opera's opening and closing, who was perhaps Violetta's younger, more innocent self. During her scene with Giorgio Germont, the child was present too. Not so much, I think, as an incarnation of Alfredo's sister, but to convey to us that Violetta sees her younger, innocent self in the young girl.

The hard working ensemble, very much all-singing all dancing, included not only the six chorus members not in solo roles but also five NHO Foundations Artists. These are young singers from the East Midlands whom the scheme is helping to gain necessary experience to help launch their careers in the performing arts, and all five are either still at Secondary School or are just moving to college, and all have seen Nevill Holt Opera's shows and taken part in its education programmes.

With such a large-scale performance, there was a significant traffic-policeman role for conductor Nicholas Chalmers. He both acquitted himself admirably here and also gave us a performance of some subtlety and musical sophistication. There was much to enjoy, and the Manchester Camerata (playing a somewhat reduced orchestration) provided some lovely moments.

Verdi: La traviata - Susana Gaspar, Luis Gomes, NHO Chorus - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)
Verdi: La traviata - Susana Gaspar, Luis Gomes, NHO Chorus - Nevill Holt Opera (Photo Lloyd Winters)

There were five performances of the opera, each with over 600 in the audience, and I believe that the dress rehearsal was open too. So that is a terrific number of people (many at affordable prices) who have been able to see what was a remarkable exercise in large-scale outdoor opera, combining musical sophistication with strong performances and vivid drama.

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