Review: ‘La Traviata’

Besotted from first glance, the untameable Alfredo Germont (Alexander Gebhard) says of his love for Violetta Valéry (Seljan Nasibli) that it is “both cross and delight of the heart”—a telling turn of phrase, given the lustful ecstasy of Act I and the subsequent tragedy of the opera’s conclusion. Under the baton of Hannah Schneider and the direction of Sean Kelly, however, this adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata was fortunately far more delight than tragedy.

Directed by Sean Kelly, Oxford Alternative Orchestra’s adaptation took as its setting the ‘modern Northeast United States,’ seeking to situate its intimate cast of characters at ‘a prestigious university of the type which is frequented by the children of well-to-do-families in that region.’ Staging the show in the dark gloom of Milner Hall at Rhodes House was an apt choice to evoke the gothic aesthetic of many of the storied U.S. universities in the northeast. The particularity of this vision was complimented by the artistic choices: the script was cut such that the sweeping romantic drama came across as, well, a bit petty, while the limited cast and spare orchestra imparted an air of neurotic intensity (both of which seemed to me, as a fond native of this part of the US, much like the romances of the northeast elite). The score was ably tackled by the Oxford Alternative Orchestra, with a particularly lively woodwind section. This staging was atypical but not radical—prestigious northeastern universities share aristocratic tendencies with 18th century Paris—though the introduction of modern technology (e.g., a computer on which Violetta composes one of her love-letters) felt a bit awkward despite the modern-day setting.

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The plot of Verdi’s opera is straightforward: a dashing social-climber (Alfredo) falls in love with a former courtesan (Violetta) at one of her parties, where he discovers that she is still seriously ill. After a whirlwind romance, Violetta is visited by Alfredo’s father (Giorgio, played here by Victor Sgarbi), who disapproves of the link between the socially questionable Violetta and his wholesome family—and particularly his daughter, whose engagement is threatened by the family’s connection to Violetta. Breaking up the couple, Giorgio sets in motion a tragic sequence of events: loving self-sacrifice from Violetta, rage and confusion from Alfredo, jealousy between two rival suitors, and eventually a passionate reunion which ends, sadly, in Violetta’s succumbing to tuberculosis in the arms of weeping Alfredo.

The cast of characters handled these plot turns with aplomb. Seljan Nasibli as Violetta was by turns impetuous and fragile, managing to transition from a confidant socialite to a trembling invalid without dropping a note. Alexander Gebhard brought a boyish energy to Alfredo, as well as a surprising tenderness to the musical performance, especially in the final act. Victor Sgarbi’s Giorgio, while slightly more of an aristocratic scion than family-values New Englander, was nonetheless convincing in deception and, later, remorse. And the Barone Douphol, Alfredo’s potential rival, received his incarnation in Raphaël Millière: blue velvet jacket, hair slicked, and a baritone smarmier than Alfredo’s tenor, though no the less pleasant for it.

A number of very smart staging choices were made throughout the production. Flowers were used to symbolise stages of love: a simple but effective motif. At the end of Act I, Violetta violently shreds a bouquet, wrestling with whether to accept Alfredo’s professed love (“Sempre libera” – “Always free”); Act II begins, suitably, with Alfredo lovingly arranging a different bouquet as he proclaims his joy in living with Violetta (“De’ miei bollenti spiriti/Il giovanile ardore” – “The youthful ardour of my ebullient spirits”). Violetta began dressed in red, but each costume change introduced more black into her attire as her illness progressed, mirroring—I suspect—her blood loss and anaemia as a result of tuberculosis. Hannah Schneider conducted her orchestra attentively and created a dialogic relationship with the singers, at times driving the pace, yet never overpowering the voices. The luxurious ritardando of “Amami, Alfredo, quant’io t’amo” (“Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you”)  in scene one of Act II made that moment a highlight of the performance, and the violent confrontation at the end of the act between Alfredo, Violetta, and the party-goers demonstrated a keen awareness of space: Alfredo stage-right, the outraged guests clustered in the middle, and Violetta—the sole seated figure—staring weakly off into the distance on stage left as she is verbally abused by her enraged lover. 

The performance was not perfect. At times, the performers seemed to be performing as though in a vocal recital rather than an opera, exhibiting a strange aversion to looking at one another; the harmonies were hit, but not always the rhythms; and, at times, the cast did not seem to have clear blocking, rotating aimlessly between the different sets of seats. But these small deviations aside, the performance as a whole was impressive and moving, building from a playful and energetic opening to an emotional finale. Stand-out performances from Nasibli, Gebhard, and Millière, buoyed by the musicianship of Schneider and her orchestra, made for a compelling adaptation of one of Verdi’s best-known works. 

Russell Bogue

Information about Oxford Alternative Orchestra’s forthcoming performances can be found on their Facebook page.

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