Is there such a thing as too much Verdi? Judging by what looked like a capacity audience at La Traviata for the opening night of Opera Australia’s 2022 Melbourne season, it would seem not.
Many members of the audience had already seen Elijah Moshinsky’s lavish production starring the cream of Australia’s sopranos such as Nicole Car and Emma Matthews as the tragic, consumptive courtesan, Violetta Valéry. Melbourne audience had also marveled at the mellifluous ease of Jessica Pratt’s singing in Victoria Opera’s 2014 mirror imaged production. This time, we were keen to hear Stacey Alleaume sing her first Violetta for her home audience. And it was a triumph. The standing ovation that greeted her as she came to take her bow must have more than fulfilled her hopes of doing justice to her dream role.
Alleaume’s career has been building steadily. Winning the 2013 Herald Sun Aria brought her to the attention of many Melbourne opera lovers, who fell in love with the warmth and clarity of her voice, her charming personality and her musicality. All these attributes were on display in this performance – plus some. Opera Australia has nurtured her talents, so that she has gradually built her instrument and her performance skills. A soprano is faced with one of Verdi’s most taxing arias almost from the get go, as Violetta is torn between love and fear. Alleaume’s precision and flexibility were outstanding and her secure E-flat at the end of “Sempre libera” was the icing on top of the coloratura cake. Many a soprano has faltered on this note with some wisely opting for the B-flat alternative, mindful that there are another three Acts to go. Being a relatively young singer, the middle of Alleaume’s voice is still fairly light, but she could be heard readily most of the time and her voice was beautifully resonant and carrying for the upper notes. It would also be difficult to find a soprano so well fitted for the part in terms of appearance and passionate acting. If a cliché can be excused, she inhabited the role.
As her adoring but naïve lover, Alfredo Germont, Ho-Yoon Chung generally used his pleasing light tenor effectively, but often appeared rather wooden and ill at ease – too intent on singing the notes and watching the conductor rather than fully responding to his gorgeous Violetta. He showed greater animation in Act III when Alfredo throws his winnings at Violetta to punish her for abandoning him. This increased vitality boded well for future performances as he relaxes into the role.
When Mario Cassi took his bow, he showed surprise at the audience’s enthusiastic reception. Although the program classes him as a baritone, there is more of a rich bass quality to his voice than we are accustomed to hearing in the role of Germont senior. It is a timbre well suited to this stern but fatherly role, however, and was within the compass of his range, although, at times a more legato line would have been welcome. Cassi’s appearance and air of gravitas were integral to his success.
Minor roles were generally performed creditably, notably Danita Weatherstone as Annina, Richard Anderson as Doctor Grenville, Andrew Moran as Marqui d’Obigny and Alexander Sefton as Baron Douphol. If a vivacious Agnes Sarkis was a last minute replacement for the role of Flora, she showed no sign of it, being relaxed and vocally assured in the scenes of champagne fuelled gaiety.
For all the beauty of Michael Yeargan’s stunning sets, the size of them remained a difficulty for Acts I and III. Members of the lusty chorus could scarcely all fit on the stage at times. Perhaps when Sydney eventually secures a suitable opera theatre, black extension panels will not be needed for Melbourne’s State Theatre. Peter J Hall’s opulent costumes would also be shown off to even better advantage.
Renato Palumbo conducted Verdi’s score with admirable attention to detail. The shimmer of high violin sound and finely nuanced playing of the Prelude to Act I expressed Violetta’s fragility perfectly, making the change of atmosphere as the curtain rose on her celebratory party all the more striking – even confronting, and in line with Moshinsky’s conception of Violetta as almost desperate in her slightly drunk gaiety. Verdi is kind to his ailing heroine, often with soft accompaniments, sometimes flute or oboe tracing her vocal line, and Palumbo ensured that we could hear every note, no matter how soft, as she succumbed to her illness in the final Act.
If you have friends who have never been to the opera before, bring them to see this one. They’ll probably even recognise some of the tunes. Just make sure you come equipped with a few tissues; Stacey Alleaume is bound to break their hearts.
Photo courtesy Opera Australia
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata”, presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May 5, 2022.