Verdi and Piave, after Dumas
The Lowry, Salford
November 15-17, 2022; 2hrs 50min
Alessandro Talevi’s production of La Traviata, first seen in 2014, has been revived this year by Opera North – and what a transformation from what we saw eight years ago!
It had its qualities then – clear story-telling, colourful costumes, and some interesting projected images among them. But what let it down was the acting ability, or lack of it, of the cast, when the concept clearly needed singers who could make agonising relationships seem real. Verdi’s passionate duets and trios came over more like singing exercises.
Now Talevi has revisited it, personally supervising the revival, and the performers this time are in a different bracket altogether. He’s made several alterations: the film projection for the opening Prelude isn’t a medical illustration of tuberculosis (the mercilessly fatal disease from which Violetta, the young heroine, is suffering) but of the gleaming, almost staring, eyes of a sufferer, and it’s accompanied by a kind of tableau ballet for the upper bodies of consumptive courtesans, writhing like tormented souls in hell, making a contrast with the final heavenly apotheosis of Violetta as she gains a sudden surge of energy just prior to her death at the end of the opera.
The whole thing is tauter and more visual, still using relatively simple means but using them effectively. There are nice little touches, such as the point (every Traviata director has to decide what to do about this) when the accompaniment before Alfredo’s Act One brindisi (toast song) seems to stop in its tracks for a moment: Talevi has someone whisper “silencio!”, as if the party guests need bringing to order. There’s a delicious bit of inter-opera reference when the fancy-dress party scene in the second part of the middle Act turns to acting out Merimee’s Carmen story (not yet an opera when La Traviata was written, but known as a novel, so that’s legit even for purists).
And – for this much thanks – Violetta doesn’t have to cough audibly to prove she’s got the dreaded TB. Her fainting fits say enough, and near the end we simply see her body racked by silent retching.
One performer, sadly, who did cough a bit was the slated Alfredo (who becomes her anguished lover), Nico Darmanin. He is a very fine tenor with a wonderful top register: I know that because he took one of the leading roles in this year’s Buxton International Festival production of La Donna del Lago (Rossini). But though he made a really good fist of Act One of this La Traviata (with a moving account of “Un dì felice” and in the duet that follows), he had to retire after that.
But this production has been double-cast for the whole run and tour, so credit all round because Oliver Johnston, from the other team, was able to take over from him. He, too, has a top-class timbre and can act the part, showing love, anger, desperation and passion.
I didn’t see members of the other cast apart from that, obviously, but what I did see, and hear, was an absolutely starry performance from Alison Langer as Violetta. She has a glorious voice, pure and (when required) powerful; able to hold back enough to convey bodily weakness but still full of emotion. Her big arias in the second Act showed this to perfection, and in the death scene everything was superbly judged, making its effect in musical terms as well as in her physical portrayal.
The other main character in the story is Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, who comes between the lovers and persuades Violetta to leave his son without revealing her reasons.
This role can become a monster, unfeeling and unreal, but Damiano Salerno sang nobly and made him a human being, a father way out of his depth and unaware of his well-meaning cruelty.
Info and tickets here