What else can be done with La Traviata that has not been done already? Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous work, the one many regard as the quintessential opera, has been through such a huge number of incarnations, revisitations and reimaginings – some more fortunate than others – that one would be truly hard pressed to think of a way to make it new. And so the production currently brought to the stage by the WNO is to be praised for finding the most honest, and yet perhaps least obvious, answer to the question: it may well be that nothing new can be done with La Traviata that would not warp it beyond recognition, and it is therefore the wisest course of action not to try. Once this becomes apparent, the only thing left to do is to try and be as faithful to the work as possible, which this production certainly does: it is the most philological take on Verdi’s famous work that I have seen in a long time, and it works because it is. There is an immersion that goes beyond the rendition of the story on stage, which lies with the staging itself: you walk out of the theatre, at the end of it, feeling that you have a fairly good impression of what going to see this famous work must have been like, if not at the time that it first opened, at least thereabouts.
Stacey Alleaume and David Junghoon Kim
The fact that the staging is conservative – no unexpected tricks, no alternative media – does not make it any less beautiful. The costumes are gorgeous, the spaces well-organised, the clever use of black curtains generates a sombre note that suits the tragic parable of the story well. It has been elsewhere remarked that La Traviata is somewhat weak on plot, but it is such a gold mine of memorable arias that it doesn’t truly need one; this is another feature that is understood by this production, which makes the choice, wisely again, to work with it, and not against it. Where the events are few and linear, it falls to the performances to bring the characters to life. Here the performances are indisputably strong.
First and foremost one must mention Stacey Alleaume’s passionate Violetta: the opera is named for this character, and it is this performance, more than any other, that can make it or break it, posing a considerable challenge for the soprano. The choice, here, to locally sacrifice absolute technical perfection in favour of emotional depth is an intelligent one. It brings a lively, human note to the character of Violetta, especially towards the end, as things are unravelling: given the tragic trajectory of this protagonist, and the ineluctability of her end, the cold perfection sometimes seen in singers tackling it may end up killing the element of human empathy that is fundamental for the part to work. Alleaume’s performance leans heavily into that element, and is effective for this very reason: in the third act most of all, where the character truly takes centre stage as the story draws to its bleak conclusion.
Equally strong performances come from the rest of the cast, with a very smooth delivery from David Junghoon Kim as Alfredo (another daunting role, given the number of famous arias this opera asks its tenor to perform; Kim is not new to playing Alfredo and inhabits the role with comfort, his rendition of Libiamo ne’ lieti calici a notable high moment) and possibly most of all of Mark S. Doss as Giorgio Germont; his nuanced presentation of what can easily be a deeply unsympathetic character is coupled with impressive technical precision, and well deserving of the enthusiastic applause it received.
As is often the case with true classics, La Traviata is permanently at risk of being tripped by its own fame. By eschewing needless innovation and concentrating on bringing to the fore the emotional elements in a work that suffered several layers of censorship (nowhere, it must be noted, is Violetta’s scandalous profession explicitly mentioned, and a good performance of this work must be very mindful of making clear what is left implicit), this production offers an excellent introduction to opera for those who have not frequented it before, and an occasion to see a classic in the form it was originally meant to take for those who have seen all the reimaginings and want to go back to its roots.
Mark S Doss and Stacey Alleaume
Mark S. Doss and David Junghoon Kim singing in Rigoletto with WNO, review:
Wales Millennium Centre until September 30 then touring
Mark S Doss talks about singing with Welsh National Opera