Reviewed – 27th May 2018
“proves that you do not need the opulence of “grand opera” to engage an audience to its utmost”
There was a time during the last century when Verdi, inexplicably, had fallen out of fashion. Today, however, his name is synonymous with “grand opera”, and yet his music also pervades our culture far beyond the opera house. One of the main reasons why his music resonates so strongly more than a century after his death is the sheer emotional depth of his compositions. Verdi was perhaps one of the most accessible composers of his time and is still a mainstay for today’s audiences.
Sophie Gilpin’s production of “La Traviata” for ‘Hampstead Garden Opera’ is a case in point, and proves that you do not need the opulence of “grand opera” to engage an audience to its utmost. She takes us into the era of the ‘swinging sixties’: a world of extravagant parties, sexual liberation and political scandals. Against this backdrop, Violetta is a fiercely independent socialite who, recovering from prolonged ill health, meets the charismatic Alfredo at one of her parties with whom she escapes to the country abandoning her former life.
The two principal roles are undoubtedly challenging. But let’s come to them in a moment. The touchstone for this particular opera is the ‘Prelude’, a stirring melody for strings, and from these very first moments we know that we are in good hands. Musical Director Sam Evans has a dozen assured musicians at his fingertips and, although working from an orchestral reduction, the dynamics match those of a full orchestra.
Equally strong are the cast; one cannot help being swept along by the natural energy of the performances. Gilpin excels at drawing out the actor within the singer and her composed yet positive direction accentuates the emotions of the characters. There is an ease, too, that makes the intricacies of the ensemble score seem effortless. And to the fore is Julia Bachmann’s outstanding Violetta. The strength of her soprano cuts to every corner of the auditorium, but within a semiquaver she can whisper the pain she feels as she makes the ultimate sacrifice. Sergio Augusto’s Alfredo is seductively hypnotic in his mix of valour and devotion. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Violetta, and we truly sense the heartbreak when his father forces Violetta to break off their liaison for the sake of his ministerial career.
This reference to the political scandals of the sixties, however, does seem like a token gesture to place the piece in its context. Beyond this, and the multiple lighting of cigarettes, there is little sense of the time or place. But by then we are so absorbed in the performances that we can forgive this, just as we can forgive the sometimes haphazard musical staging, and the set changes that elevate the word ‘clunky’ to a whole new level.
For this is an outstanding show, with a distinctive blend of virtuosity and passion. Heart warming and heart wrenching in equal measure. You have to be either stone-hearted or tone deaf not to shed a tear for its tragic climax. A musical triumph.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Laurent Compagnon