Opera in 4 Acts by Guiseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, after the play LA DAME AUX CAMELIAS by Alexandre Dumas fils (1852)
Performance by Opera Australia on Friday, 30th March 2012 at Lady Macquarie’s Chair on Sydney Harbour.
Conductor Brian Castles-Onion
Director Francesca Zambello
Scenery Designer Brian Thompson
Costume Designer Tess Schofield
Lighting Designer John Rayment
Choreography Stephen Baynes
Sound Designer Tony David Cray
Site Designer Ross Wallace
Producer/Assistant Director Michael Campbell
Second Assistant Director Matthew Barclay
Violetta Emma Matthews
Alfredo Gianluca Terranova
Pere Germont Jonathan Summers
Flora Margaret Plummer
Gastone Martin Buckingham
Baron Douphol James Clayton
Marquis d’Obigny Christopher Hillier
Doctor Grenvil John Bolton Wood
Annina Sarah Sweeting
Violetta’s servant Samuel Sakker
Messanger Tom Hamilton
Servant Richard Mitchell
This mega-production deserves only three words – Fantastic ! Fantastic ! Fantastic !
When Opera Australia impresario and Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini announced the intention of staging of LA TRAVIATA on a stage on Sydney Harbour, many in the artistic community as well as opera goers thought he was crackers. Well did he prove them wrong !
The rationale for the spectacular was to present opera in a novel way to attract new opera audiences, to extend the current audience base, to use the Australian and Sydney love of the outdoors and al fresco entertainment as a base for a new concept for producing opera, using the tremendous vista of Sydney Harbour and the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as a potential draw card for overseas and interstate opera lovers, and finally as a trade off for Melbourne getting the bi-annual RING Festival.
The enormity of the project cannot be appreciated without considering the logistics of the enterprise, watching the construction of the stage and facilities, and finally experiencing the opera and the event. To stage LA TRAVIATA Opera Australia first had to find additional financial resources for the massive cost said to be around $A 11,000,000. Harusha Handa and the NSW Government through Events NSW came to the party providing millions to assist with the project. A massive team of engineers, designers – not just of the sets, costumes and lighting, but also for the grandstand, bars, restaurants, and decoration of the site, acoustic engineers etc have all put in massive hours to deliver this project. The logistics of organising this, and issues such as safety, OH & S issues are massive, and have all run apparently smoothly with a superb result.
Arrival at the site was relatively easy, with the Domain Car Park relatively close and a pleasant walk through the parkland of the Domain and along the road to Mrs Macquarie’s Chair (Point). Those arriving by Public Transport had a brief walk to the site as well. Entering the site was easy with plenty of accommodating Opera Australia staff to guide guests. There was no crowding at the entrance gate and the descending walkway to the performance was via a wide path screened with cyclone fencing covered in cloth with a plant motive. on arrival at the main site you could not help but be blown away by the enormity of the stage, stand, facilities and the view of the Harbour. The bars, restaurants and outdoor foyer areas were superbly designed, spacious, attractive and offered excellent views of the stage. The lower footpath was covered in astroturf and landscaped with literally dozens of large attractive potted plants. The grandstand was constructed using scaffolding and secure planking and included comfortable padded seats. The seats were more comfortable than the seats in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House ! The Southern Cantina and Northern Restaurant are constructed with large steel girders. Each of the areas was superbly built and decorated belying the temporary nature of the construction.
Purchasing a pre-performance drink and food was easy with little cueing. Entrance to the stand was either via the walkway at the front of the stage, or a very wide walkway behind the stand abutting the cliff face. The most outstanding feature of the site was the relationship between the stage and stand. With the tilt of the gigantic mirror that served as the set towards the stand a feeling of great closeness was attained. Seating in the cheaper seats at the sides of the stand was almost as good as the centre portion.
Whether you agree with the controversial concept of outdoor miked opera or not. This opera was still cast from strength, mightily sung, thoroughly engaging, dramatic and entertaining. The initial impression of the concept of a tilted silver mirror and huge chandelier for a the set seemed a little light compared to the massive sets constructed for the Bregenz Festival, but on seeing the production in its entirety, these pre-performance notions seemed mere quibbles. The massive mirror and chandelier together with the close proximity of the stage to the audience worked superbly. So did the colourful costumes updated to the 1960′s.
Francesco Zambello was certainly not frightened to be adventurous with the production, commencing the action during the prelude showing Violetta ill on her black silk covered bed at the front of the stage, before preparing for her party. Scenes contained minimal furniture and props. The First Act commenced with the bed disappearing into the floor of the stage. The party scene had guests seated at a huge, long banquet table trundled out from behind part of the mirror frame upstage. Act II Set in the country side used a 26 person long, silver Chesterfield lounge centre stage, green lighting and extras raking the fields around the frame of the mirror. Flora’s party commenced with the party guests being ferried in on light festooned water taxis to a festively lit dock. The set had no furniture until the card game started and a huge round card table was ingeniously made by dancers kneeling and stretching a huge round red cloth over their shoulders. The Act I party scene was full of life. The Act I Brindisi culminated in the entire company suddenly turing around to the harbour for a massive fireworks display. The act culminated in Violetta climbing onto the chandelier and being flown in the air to sing ‘Sempre Libera’ to a spine tingled audience for the second coup de theatre of the evening. Francesca Zambello is quoted as saying “it would be ridiculous trying to compete with such a stunning night vista” – let me assure her that the audience on the night I went was transfixed to the action, and only seemed to dwell on the city and harbour vistas during the intervals.
Musically, the production was in the safe and more than competent hands of conductor, Brian Castles-Onion who delivered a well paced and dramatic realisation of the Verdi score with the orchestra buried in a studio away from sight under the stage. Musical co-ordination was superb given the potential for the time delay across the distances involved on stage. Emma Matthews achieved yet another triumph to her repertoire with her highly dramatic, vivacious and ultimately heart rending performance of the title role. Her voice, usually referred to as light, certainly seemed to embrace the musical drama of the role splendidly with a newfound richness and punch. The guest tenor, Gianluca Terranova was simply superb, His rich, vibrant tenor could occasionally be heard above the miked sound of his voice! He should certainly be renamed Gianluca Supernova on the basis of this performance. Hopefully he has been signed for many future visits ! His Italian pronunciation was particularly vivid ( perhaps not surprising since he is Italian – but still excitingly Italian sounding and an abject lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation). Jonathan Summers as Pere Germont was extraordinary in his characterisation of the role both vocally and dramatically.
In the lesser roles, Margaret Plummer stood out as an exemplary Flora, Martin Buckingham proved how much can be made of the smaller role of Gastone, James Clayton (ex-West Australian Opera) made an auspicious debut on the East coast as Baron Duphol and the ever reliable John Bolton-Wood was superb as Dr Grenvil, which had been made into a much larger role with him attending to Violetta’s health in minor scenes throughout the opera. Smaller roles also sounded excellent, but then the opera was miked.
The miked sounded excellent with a reasonably faithful reproduction of the voices with virtually no distortion. The only quibble with the sound design was some distortion of the strings during their transparent playing in the quieter moments during the all important preludes.
Audience response was magnificent on the evening with the entire audience wildly stamping during the curtain calls. An Italian family (mother, father and 2 teenage sons) in front of me sat on the edge of their seat during the performance, a couple to my right sang along with the score the entire way through the performance (despite ballet being their preferred art form as their son is a principal with the Australian Ballet). Other audience members chattered away in French and German during the intervals, and several acquaintances were making their first visit ever to see an opera.
While not the biggest outdoor opera event seen in Sydney (that honour goes to Guiseppe Raffa and his International Opera Festival production of AIDA in the Sydney Football Stadium in 1988, which was performed on a 250 x 150 foot stage, with a giant Sphinx as the centrepiece, and starring such illuminaries as Katia Ricciarelli as Aida and Piero Cappucilli as Amonasro ). Compared to the Bregenz Festival, the size of the stage and set is obviously smaller but the Sydney version creates a greater sense of intimacy within a much more stunning setting. The only down side is the much smaller number of seats that were available for the Opera Festival AIDA and are available at Bregenz. with an audience size of 3,000 it is only a few hundred more than the seating that was available for staged opera in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall during the 1970′s to 1990′s.
Well, many die hard traditionalists might hate the concept, but I doubt very much they were not enthralled and greatly entertained by the performance. In the final analysis, the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is a massive success. Opera Australia has achieved a brilliant staging of Verdi’s masterwork – LA TRAVIATA, proving outdoor opera is more than viable as an alternative to staged performances in the Opera Theatre for some potential audiences. It appears to have attracted an eclectic, new audience that otherwise may never have seen opera, and provided a new way for traditional audiences to enjoy opera.
Carmen is planned for the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour for 2013. Bring it on!