12, 14, 16, 18 February,
Festival Opera, Municipal Theatre, Napier
By Jess Soutar Barron
For an opera first performed in the 1850s this La Traviata fits perfectly in a schema of Europe between the Wars, fitting for Art Deco week. Hedonistic euphoria is juxtaposed against quaint and cloying traditional domesticity to create social tension that rises to breaking point. Set and costuming reflect fascist tropes with red and black prominently placed. Restrictive and disciplined lighting design textures the humbler setting with warmth while creating a counter-point of being cloistered in an atmosphere of suffocating decadence.
With this production, Festival Opera is back on track after a confusing Escher-esk effort in 2018. Here, Jose Aparicio leans into his Spanish heritage with motifs and symbols. As artistic director, set designer and conductor he seems to have taken back control as ‘Maestro’ and is carrying this presentation close to his heart. The overture is accompanied by hints of the overarching themes of the piece with Anna Patalong resplendent in a gown of black lace on red satin suggesting flamenco flair (and ahh that quintessential red rose tucked into a sweep of black hair).
Throughout, it’s this attention to detail and simple but effective symbolism that enriches the mise-scene and makes the full production so satisfying. For example, his recurring clock motif presents a sense of urgency, literal clock-watching, as the principals race against time to prove love wins out over death. His stag head in the passage of Alfredo’s home reflects those giant bull’s horns, representing masculinity, central to the 2013 production of Figaro.
Anna Patalong as Violetta is spectacular. At first hesitant she hits her stride in duet-cum-foreplay with Rosario La Spina and really shines in her Act One aria “Ah, fors ‘e lui…”. From there it’s climax after climax with some stunning cadenza and coloratura. For Patalong’s music craft alone this production is worth every minute.
Alfredo is beautifully cast, bold and booming but with a sensitivity that wins out over what could have read as brassy Lothario. He’s so strong James Harrison as Giorgio has to work to keep up but succeeds – and he too manages to balance the largesse of opera with an intimate and soft approach when required.
The control demonstrated by these leads over their primary instrument – voice – is tremendous, it enables the music to be the hero. From there, set, costuming, stage craft and lighting diminish in importance. The relationship between singer and orchestra is mutually appreciative and respectful – they leave space for each other to live into and the audience benefits. There’s no battle going on in the senses. Music is the thing.
The chorus is hard working and dynamic with well-crafted ensemble choreography that works to heighten dramatic tension.
The sets are a little flat, with some clever stage craft that manages to lift them somewhat, the result gives the feel of a pop-up book. The opulence and grandeur of some scenes is offset by a cluttered cottage atmosphere in the mid-section. Despite a feeling of this being a waste of the span of the stage it does achieve a visceral claustrophobia reflective of the inner state of the central characters, trapped in a tangle of love, honour and betrayal. More Downton Abbey though than La Scala.
Youth corps Project Prima Volta is growing stronger each year with a ‘Graduates’ tranche now operating within the company. Over half are entrenched or on their way to classics and music tertiary programmes. Lucky for the rest of us Festival Opera is also managing to educate us ludites, year by year, on this classical form. We are beginning to build a culture of attendance here after six years of productions. We’re gaining longevity in our opera-going experience, and the confidence to discourse comfortably and constructively about the medium. But more than that we’re owning the form locally, home-grown opera dominated by our own talent, supported and mentored by extraordinary overseas skill that seem as committed as we are to seeing this company get better and stronger and braver. We may not all be opera buffs yet but from tonight’s reception it seems we’re well on our way.