Friday, June 5, 2015

La Traviata with the Twentieth-Century Blues

It was on an impulse that I went to see the first of two Oxford performances of Opera Up Close's presentation of La Traviata. Having spotted a poster and purchased a ticket on my lunch break, I had an unexpectedly cathartic Thursday evening discovering the company's creative adaptation of Verdi's masterpiece. (I'm not using that word glibly; among other things, the performance reminded me of just how brilliantly insightful and well-constructed the opera is.) This evening's presentation was not only a transladaptation of the libretto, but an adaptation of the score for piano trio by Harry Blake. I was more than a little skeptical about the latter, but found it, in the event, to be creative, elegant, and expressive. The colors of piano, clarinet, and cello were thoughtfully used to mark both nuances in the drama, and its overall shape. Wagnerite that I am, I kept listening for particular associations of instrument to mood; I don't think these were there. I was, to be honest, also expecting perhaps some jazzy allusions in the adaptation; but musical references to the interwar setting were limited to an apt interpolation of I Ain't Got Nobody in the party scene of Act II. Performing the herculean task of evoking a Verdian orchestra, Elspeth Wilkes (coordinating from the piano,) Sarah Douglas (clarinet,) and William Rudge (cello,) all played with remarkable subtlety, as well as remarkable stamina.

I'm on record as being ambivalent towards opera in translation. In translating/adapting the libretto for an interwar setting, I thought Robin Norton-Hale was wise to take considerable freedoms. This provided some compensation for the loss of some of the rich resonances of the original, and the inherent difficulties of fitting English consonant clusters into Verdian lines. Moreover, it added poignancy to Violetta's quest for freedom to have an initial opposition between her dogmatically pursued independence and Alfredo's old-fashioned ideas about her needing a man to cherish her. Their extramarital establishment somewhere in the outskirts of London thus represents an adjustment in worldview for each of them (and happiness! sniff!) Tangentially: I say London, because Flora's use of "dollars" and "honey" were almost the only markers of the piece's ostensibly American setting, and by the time these made their appearance, everyone's English accents had placed the piece, for me. There's also a late reference to New York... but I'm not sure why the action was in the US rather than England. The latter made more sense to me, as having social codes both stricter and more subtly enforced (generally) and definitely, in the 1920s, more access to free-flowing champagne. I found the adaptation very successful on the whole, though, and creative without being heavy-handed. Credit is also due to Norton-Hale for thoughtful direction of the singers.

Without exception, the evening's singers provided intelligently-sung performances of admirable emotional commitment. As Flora/Annina, Rosie Middleton sang with pleasingly rounded and secure tone, and offered a genuinely touching characterization. The role of Annina was struck in this adaptation, making Flora's friendship more substantial and more intimate. In the dual role of the Baron and the Doctor, Dario Dugandzic made his significant one-liners count, and impressed me with how successfully he adapted his physical self-presentation to embody the suave, odious baron and the somewhat weary, genuinely kind doctor. I would have gladly heard more of him. Andrew Mayor gave a full-bodied dramatic performance as Germont père, in this production not only a hypocrite, but a sleazy hypocrite, a manipulative politician and fellow-participant in Violetta's world of dusk-to-dawn excess. I thought that Mayor might have done more with variations of vocal color, or textual emphasis, but much more of his text is expositional in this adaptation. And he was very successful in making me resent Germont père's destructive views on the gendered criteria for respectability.

I often have limited sympathy for Alfredo, but this production gave him both unusual depth, and genuine growth and maturation in his relationship with Violetta. Philip Lee's classic English tenor was unusual for the role, but his was a fine voice, and his sound opened up nicely after some initial apparent tightness. Lee used vocal color very expressively over the course of Act II (split here around the single interval.) Lee's reading of "De' miei bollenti spiriti" was thoughtful, and I liked that the transladaptation made sense of one of Alfredo's most inexplicable or unsympathetic lines. Ordinarily, it has seemed odd to me that a wealthy young man of 25 or so should emphasize that Violetta "helps him forget the past." If his past, that argues a bizarre self-absorption and self-pity; if hers, then it argues that he deserves to be slapped. But if, as here, Alfredo is part of the war generation, then his need for oblivion is poignantly credible. This could have been heavy-handed, but I didn't feel it was. And Lee's acting was painfully good; during his father's persuasion, I found myself heart-wrung by his vain attempts at articulacy, the nervous, anguished fidgeting of his hands. Unusually for a Traviata, I found myself believing that this Alfredo really does have a chance of breaking free of his father's influence and crafting a life guided by the ideas that Violetta has helped him forge. By the same token, of course, I was more than usually heartbroken for both of the lovers, not just the always-magnificent Violetta. As Violetta, boldly defying the world, Louisa Tee was very impressive. Her diction was unfortunately unintelligible at points, but her fine, rich soprano was a treat. Tee did an admirable job of capturing the particular poignancy of Violetta's plight in the 1920s. She can vote! she can Charleston! she can mix a mean cocktail! but she is nonetheless trapped by the expectations of a social elite that professes itself scandalized by her social freedoms. Tee did an admirable job of seizing on liberty as Violetta's watchword, and claiming it as something crucially important. Even as she lies dying, she still believes, shining-eyed, in its possibility. 


  1. This sounds like a very worthwhile endeavour. Some of my best opera nights have been at this kind of production.

    1. It's always an exciting adventure, I find... with, as you say, frequently very rich and rewarding performances.

  2. I love this production of LA TRAVIATA. Fortunately, I get to see it for the third time at The Tricycle Theatre next week.


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