THEATRE BY FRANK McKONE
La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House February 1 – March 29 2010
I am not qualified to make critical judgements of the musicianship in this production, which is directed by Elijah Moshinsky and features Elvira Fatykhova as Violetta and Aldo Di Toro as Alfredo. However the full house on opening night applauded very enthusiastically after every aria and other set pieces.
Musically, I like what I like, and to hear Verdi’s music on this grand scale is a special experience. But this was the first opportunity for me see the whole play, rather than hear parts sung in isolation, on recordings. Theatrically, this presentation more than met my expectations.
In La dame aux camélias, the Dumas fils novel and play which were the source of the plot, Marguerite’s words define the central concern of the drama: “Whatever she may do, a fallen woman can never redeem herself!” Though Alfredo loves Violetta truly and his father (Jonathan Summers) finally understands that she is worthy in herself, and is not to be treated simply as a fly in the ointment of his family’s reputation, tuberculosis is the device the author uses to avoid facing up to the final solution. If she had not died, what would have become of her?
There has long been a trend in theatre to find a different setting for previous centuries’ plays to “update” them for a modern audience. Last year I thought this had not worked for the production of Don Giovanni and some commentators have been concerned about this year’s Tosca. This La traviata was set in its mid-19th Century Parisian high society context. Ironically Verdi had insisted on present-day costuming, but the Venice opera house overrode his wishes with a setting around 1700 instead of 1850. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J Hall’s costumes have done the right thing by Verdi, and by the modern audience.
The effect, as I saw it, was that for us in modern Australia the “fallen woman” issue is a thing of the past, but the social pressures on Violetta and Alfredo and their emotional responses become metaphorical, symbolic of the determination of people of our generation to be independent of traditional family strictures and to find our own way in the world. What for Verdi was a realistic story, for us is a timeless fairy story.
The result was that the singers could freeze while the audience applauded, holding the emotion of the moment, and then pick up the thread to take us into the next phase. The chorus could be wonderfully choreographed in group movement and dance on a crowded stage, almost like an Ancient Greek chorus providing context and commentary on the actions of the protagonists.
Let’s not turn tuberculosis into breast cancer and dress Violetta in jeans. Let’s be true to Verdi’s original conception, as this production is, so we can take what we need from his art.