The OperaUpClose production of La Traviata arrived this week at the Oxford Playhouse. The company, which began life as an experimental operatic group performing in a room above a pub in Kilburn, promised an intimate and ‘up close’ performance of Verdi’s classic tragic opera. Set in the era of flapper girls and dapper gentlemen, the production retained the emotive depth of Verdi’s masterpiece, but made fresh stylistic, instrumental and linguistic choices in order to bring the production to a new audience.
Following in the footsteps of companies such as the English National Opera, the performance was in English rather than the original Italian. Although this choice was at first jarring, with the English syllables and words sounding strained and alien alongside Verdi’s music, it was eventually a complete success. I missed the beauty of the Italian language in the production, but it is clear from the reaction of the audience that this linguistic choice made the opera feel very accessible to everyone in attendance. Moreover, the use of English did remove a barrier to our understanding of the characters, which can sometimes be marred by the constant switching between watching the performance and checking the surtitles. In this sense, the choice was a great success, and the depth of the characters’ emotions was brought out beautifully. Violetta’s poignant refrain, for example, that she is ‘better; look, you see, I’m smiling,’ was greatly enhanced by the audience’s ability to immediately understand her pain. Although I missed hearing La Traviata in Italian, with all the musicality and sparkle which that language generates, I believe that the choice to perform in English was a wise one, which enhanced the drama of the piece.
Performed by a small cast of singers and three instruments, one would perhaps expect the opera to lose its grand quality and impressive sound. However, this was not the case at all. The musicians performed wonderfully, and particular credit must be given to the three instrumentalists. The presence of the piano (played by Elspeth Wilkes), clarinet (Sarah Douglas) and cello (William Rudge) offered an emotive and heartfelt accompaniment to the singers. In some of the recitative sections of the opera, the piano acted almost as a gesture to piano accompaniments in the original silent cinemas, and in the beautiful arias of Violetta and Alfredo, the trio of instruments added an unexpected emotional depth. The singers were all similarly impressive, with Louisa Tee deserving high praise for her exceptional performance as Violetta. The opera was not only well sung, but also extremely well-acted. The poignancy of the scene in the first act between Violetta and Germont, in which she is encouraged to leave Alfredo in order to save his family name, was a personal highlight, and was full of pathos. The following scene, in which she departs from Alfredo, singing the famous Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo aria, brought several members of the audience, including myself, to tears. Violetta’s degenerating health throughout the second act, and her final demise in the last scene, were beautifully acted, highlighting the tragedy of rediscovering love at the very moment when one must lose it forever.
The performance clearly highlighted the double standards facing the women and men of Verdi’s opera. The attitudes of the Baron and Alfredo’s father towards Violetta are particularly telling of the plight of the ‘fallen woman’ in nineteenth century society, and it was extremely interesting to see this ‘fallen woman’ trope transferred to the Jazz era of decadence. Unlike the male characters, Violetta’s past cannot be forgiven or forgotten, and it is she who must sacrifice herself, her happiness and her future for the characters around her. Verdi humanises the ‘fallen woman,’ giving her a life, a story of her own, and a tragically poignant ending, and OperaUpClose made the most of this rich, complex plot. The production was not stuffy nor overwrought, but rather was fresh, inventive and full of raw emotion. The performance was a resounding success — OperaUpClose is an operatic company to watch out for.
For more information about OperaUpClose, please visit their website.