Monday, March 26, 2012



 Report by Bill Stephens

Photos by Len Power

                                                              Emma Mathews in "La Traviata"

An invitation to attend the final dress rehearsal for a sneak-peek at Opera Australia’s spectacular new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” was irresistible. Particularly as this new production is being staged under the stars on Sydney Harbour, at a cost, according to Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini of $11.5 million, and stars Emma Mathews, in her role debut, as Violetta teamed with Italian heart-throb  tenor Gianluca Terranova, as Alfredo.

Later in the season, a no less sensational casting has Rachelle Durkin taking over the role of Violetta, with the Korean tenor,  Ji-Min Park as her Alfredo.

As luck would have it, the day of the dress rehearsal dawned overcast, and by dusk, a light drizzle had set in. However, buoyed by the advice from Opera Australia that the performance would only be cancelled if weather conditions made it dangerous to proceed, I invested in a new umbrella and headed for the harbour.

As we arrived, my colleague, who was reporting for Artsound’s radio program “Dress Circle”, and I, along with the rest of the audience, was thoughtfully presented with complimentary ponchos, a practical gesture which certainly enhanced our enjoyment of the event despite the relentless drizzle.

We were invited to enjoy the catering facilities, which included three glamorous, al fresco eating areas and mobile champagne bars, while busy stage-hands mopped the amazing stage, designed by Brian Thompson in the shape of a huge trompe l’oeil painted gilt-framed mirror, secured on pylons drilled into the ocean bed. Resting on the stage was an amazing chandelier, which was raised above the stage for the performance.

At 7pm, the advertised starting time, Lyndon Terracini announced that as weather radars indicated that the rain would soon pass over the site, the commencement of the performance would be delayed.  Canvas coverings were quickly pulled over the stage area to keep it as dry as possible.

However the rain didn’t ease up as expected, and after a couple more postponements, it was announced that the performance would proceed, despite the rain. However, because of the late start, Act 11, the act in which Alfredo’s father visits Violetta to ask her to give up her relationship with Alfredo, would be omitted. The canvas coverings were whisked away, the huge chandelier rose, dozens of guests, dressed in Tess Schofield’s glamorous La Dolce Vita inspired costumes, flooded on to the stage, and Violetta’s fabulous party was underway.  

The Australian Ballet and Opera Orchestra under Brian Castles-Onion sounded magnificent, and the amplified sound balance between singers and orchestra was crystal clear and exciting.
                                                                  Emma Mathews

As Violetta, Emma Mathews was magnificent.  Dressed in a gorgeous 1950’s-style, ankle length, scarlet gown, with a Grace Kelly hairstyle, she looked and sounded ravishing, and despite the huge the stage, was immediately the focus of attention, the perfect hostess, acknowledging and flirting with each of her guests.

When the handsome Alfredo (Gianluca Terranova) arrived at the party, their attraction was immediate and obvious, and even though this was a dress rehearsal, there was no holding back.
                                   Gianluca Terranova and Emma Mathews in "La Traviata"

Director, Francesca Zambello’s flair for staging large-scale spectacles is masterful.   Her staging of both the party scenes, for which she keeps the stage filled with swirling imagery, while carefully maintaining focus on the principal characters is particularly impressive, and the way she has included the fantastic harbour backdrop as an integral part of her production is at times breathtaking.

Stephen Baynes has contributed dazzling choreography which includes lilting waltzes for Violetta’s party guests and a spectacularly costumed gypsy floorshow for Flora’s party.  

 The use of fireworks at the end of the famous “Libiamo” chorus was stunning and remarkably appropriate for such a party. The perfectly-timed final burst of fireworks at the moment of Violetta’s death created another unforgettable moment, as did the sight of Violetta soaring into the night sky in the huge chandelier at the climax of “Sempre Libre”.   

Brian Thomson’s stage setting is a masterpiece of scenic design, holding its own against the magnificent Sydney skyline, and with the addition of elegant props, providing satisfying environments for each of the acts.  The much-heralded chandelier, a particularly spectacular scenic element in its own right, was also integral to the production design, floating above the party scenes or descending to the stage to form a succession of moodily lit backdrops.

At some point in the evening the rain stopped, but I was so engrossed in the opera, that I hadn’t noticed precisely when. The realisation struck me that even though I had expected to enjoy this production as a spectacle, even with an act missing; I had been caught up in the story-telling.

Emma Mathews and Gianluca Terranova were a stunning couple, completely believable as the glamorous courtesan and her young lover.  The combination of Mathews’ stunning appearance, glittering soprano and confident acting, and the good-looking Terranova’s soaring Italianate tenor was both thrilling and moving.

Then there was Jonathan Summers, also in glorious voice, bringing great presence and gravitas to the role of Alfredo’s father, especially in the final scene in which he seeks Violetta’s forgiveness.  The rest of the cast, including the chorus and dancers, had woven their magic so effectively that I had forgotten any discomfort caused by the rain, and simply didn’t want it to stop.

Surely the mark of a great production.

Don’t let the weather deter  you. This is a triumphant production which works on every level, guaranteed to provide you with an opera experience you will cherish for years to come. 

                                                              La Traviata - Opera Australia