Opera review: La Traviata

Three state opera companies join forces to stage a pleasing retelling of Verdi’s most beloved opera.

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a classic tale of love and lust, of money and class, and the many artifices of polite society. 

Violetta Valéry is la traviata – literally ‘the fallen woman’ or ‘the wayward one’ – a high class courtesan plying her trade in the salons of mid-19th Century Paris. She is the original Pretty Woman who finds true love with a wealthy suitor, Alfredo Germont.

Young Alfredo offers to take her away from her sordid life among the horizontales and their monied clients, but the happy ending is not to be. Germont’s father begs Violetta to break off the relationship for the sake of his family’s honour and the imminent marriage of Alfredo’s sister. And yes, Violetta dies of consumption, as tragic heroines were wont to do, before all can be put to rights.

At the time, it was an open secret that La Traviata was life imitating art. The libretto, by Verdi’s close friend and regular collaborator Francesco Maria Piave, was taken from the play and book The Lady of the Camellias (La Dame aux Caméllias) by Alexandre Dumas fils which told the sad but true story of Marie Duplessis, the most fashionable courtesan in Paris, who died in 1847.

This new staging is a co-production between Opera Queensland, State Opera South Australia, and West Australian Opera. The three companies have shared creative talent and resources but each state will use its own chorus and orchestra, along with some changes in principal cast. Director Sarah Giles has empowered Violetta by seeing her through a feminist lens, but she does so with a gentle and empathetic touch. There is nothing here to make Verdi spin in his Milanese grave. 

Read: Three state operas unite for feminist La Traviata

Acclaimed Australian soprano Lauren Fagan was delightful on opening night in the title role, singing with a strong voice and very clear pitch. Australian-Chinese tenor Kang Wang gave depth and feeling to Alfredo, especially in Acts 2 and 3. And while individually Fagan and Wang were vocally excellent, their stage craft felt a little reserved. Where is their grand passion that makes this story such a timeless tragedy? We really need to see some more chemistry to understand their love and feel their sacrifice.  

The other key cast members, including James Roser, Pelham Andrews, and Jeremy Tatchell, were eloquent and vibrant. The State Opera Chorus, under chorus master Anthony Hunt, really enhanced the production and were in fine form on opening night. They made the most of Verdi’s delightful waltz themes and filled the stage with verve.

La Traviata is very much a chamber opera, and the sophisticated set and lighting design in this production really enhance that feeling of intimacy. The opening scene, portrayed by Sarah Giles as a series of still life tableaux, works extremely well. And while some of the other staging decisions are not quite as effective, the production overall is smart and sophisticated.

The design is elegant and refined rather than adopting the glitz and glamour we often see in operatic staging. And while the costuming is generally en pointe, in period style with a modern twist, one or two pieces do look oddly out of place. There is an especially engaging scene in Act 2 where a pair of masked dancers, played with athletic grace by Phoebe Surman and Max Walburn, entertain the guests at an exclusive party. It gives the audience a feeling of being voyeurs, peeking through the windows of this decadent soiree.

Read: Theatre review: The Phantom of the Opera

Down in the pit, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra gave a striking performance under the enthusiastic baton of Oliver von Dohnányi, a very experienced operatic conductor currently based in Prague. Although von Dohnányi rightly gave precedence to the vocals, I would have loved a little more firepower to fully appreciate Verdi’s wonderful score. 

The final Adelaide performance, next Saturday on 3 September is already sold out. And the excellent program is worth buying for the insightful essay on the fallen woman in art by Art Gallery of SA Director Rhana Devenport.

This new iteration of La Traviata is highly recommended and should please both modernists and traditionalists.

La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi
Opera Queensland, State Opera South Australia, and West Australian Opera
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Oliver von Dohnányi
Director: Sarah Giles
Set and Costume Designer: Charles Davis
Lighting Designer: Paul Jackson
Cast: Lauren Fagan, Kang Wang

La Traviata will be performed until 3 September 2022.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.