The sense of déjà vu as an opera-goer can be overwhelming.
The familiar pianissimo strings of the overture (delicately summoned from the Opera Australia Orchestra for this run by Italian maestro Andrea Licata, a traviata expert). The lavish Parisian drawing room as the curtain first opens, an ornate dollhouse set sketched by Michael Yeargan. The crowd of frocked-up, champagne-swilling revellers, draped in Peter J Hall’s couture period threads, lit beautifully by Nigel Levings’s original design.
I’ve seen director Elijah Moshinsky’s fairytale La traviata — “opera like you see in the movies”, the company boasts — on stages in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. More than once. If you attend opera in this country, it is inescapable. There are members of the chorus who weren’t yet born when it first premiered in Australia in 1994. And yet it will fill seats and coffers another 11 times in Sydney this season, another nine times in Melbourne. Reliable, bankable, beloved.
So what’s new? Well, the surtitles are now also displayed in Chinese, a visual cue to how iconic work in this iconic house draws so many tourists to prop up the company’s delicately balanced budgets.
Oh, and there’s something else. That’s a new fallen woman in the red velvet dress, bubbly and bouncing between partygoers to give herself pleasure, as she trills, since pleasure is the best medicine for her ills. It’s a new sort of pleasure to audiences who might not live long enough for a reimagined La traviata production.
Nicole Car has been compared with daunting regularity to the compatriot soprano whose name adorns the theatre. But dare not speak Ms Sutherland’s name. Car, who started out as a jazz singer before realising her voice could be just a little more voluminous than a speakeasy demands, is blazing her own path. Graduating from Opera Australia’s young artists program, and busting out of supporting roles, Car is now booked solid for years performing leading roles on the most important opera stages in the world.
As Nicole Car collapsed to the floor on stage in the final scene, many in the auditorium rose to their feet. The standing ovation, relatively rare in Australian opera circles, was as emphatic as her appreciation at the curtain call was genuine.
But never has she stepped into Violetta’s high heels, arguably the meatiest female role in the bel canto canon. Until recently, she has said, she didn’t think she was up to it.
The Sydney opening night crowd may have, for the smallest moment, wondered if she still wasn’t. The nerves, perhaps, of performing this haunting, exhausting role bubbled to the surface. The voice, in act one, seemed just a little tight. The audience, riding this expectant mount with a jockey’s impatience, involuntarily leaned forward just a little, holding their collective breath a little longer.
But as Violetta grew frailer, Car’s spine stiffened. In act two, confronting the money problems of her man and the public relations problems of her father-in-law, the command and vivid colour of her voice came through. Torment, clearly, is Car’s solid ground. The vocal fluency and dramatic expressiveness we associate with the great dames of this role — Sutherland, yes, but fellow Australians from Deborah Riedel to Emma Matthews, hell those scratchy Maria Callas recordings — was there for all to hear.
The crowd warmed up. It knew it had backed a winner. As Car collapsed to the floor on stage in the final scene, many in the auditorium rose to their feet. The standing ovation, relatively rare in Australian opera circles, was as emphatic as her appreciation at the curtain call was genuine. She did it. We knew she could.
Not that she was allowed to steal the show. In act two, the rich baritone of Ukrainian Vitaliy Bilyy was a silky match. Their duet (Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura) was strawberries-and-cream exquisite. As the good doctor Grenvil, Gennadi Dubinsky possesses a fine bass instrument. And young mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley, an Opera Australia regular, had lovely qualities as Flora.
Which brings us to Alfredo, Violetta’s star-crossed lover. Korean Ji-Min Park is a squeaky clean tenor with a sort of wide-eyed persona. It’s served him well on Australian stages as Puccini’s younger and more playful protagonist Rodolfo in La bohème. Here, stepping into the darker world of Verdi, Ji-Min can have a featherweight presence. There’s the nagging sense he needs another decade on his face (and voice) to really inhabit the role.
Still, he sung true and gave Car just enough to work with. Which is just enough to turn this traviata into a hit. The bums on seats are her doing.
Don’t expect, dear opera lovers, to see this opera afresh. Just a fresh-faced performer mounting a formidable assault on the operatic Everest.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED WITH THE SUPPORT OF DAILY REVIEW READERS. FIND OUT MORE HERE
La traviata plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 27 (Stacey Alleaume performs the role of Violetta in performances on March 3 and 22).