King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 3rd October 2018
“artistic lighting creates a snug, clandestine ambience, with resourceful and imaginative scene changes”
Far from 1850s Paris, we enter through the sleazy glow and pulsating bass of the King’s Head Theatre into present day England for a new take on Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’. Stripping the story to its core and adapting four main roles to fit the update, Becca Marriott and Helena Jackson recreate the life of Violetta as a pole-dancer who chances upon Elijah (Alfredo in the original), reluctantly dragged by his father into the club where she works, and finds true love. Although a chunk of Alfredo’s story of male friendship and rivalry has been omitted, this adaptation adheres to the original idea of social reputation by making Elijah’s father anxious for his own political career (rather than unable to marry off his daughter) and he manages to persuade Violetta to leave his son. The ending moves away from the melodramatic tableau of the heroine dying in her lover’s arms, to an angry re-encounter of the couple and, while clinging on to his image, her decision to find her own freedom.
The combination of Amanda Mascarenhas’s red-tinged set and Nic Farman’s artistic lighting creates a snug, clandestine ambience, with resourceful and imaginative scene changes. In contrast to the grandiose, full-scale productions, this one concentrates on the intense relationships between four of the opera’s characters, Panaretos Kyriatzidis’ arrangement of the orchestral score for solo piano working well as an accompaniment. Oliver Brignall’s expressive tenor tones capture the changing moods of Elijah – nervous, enamoured, angry, impassioned. However, the strident power of Becca Marriott’s singing dominates the occasional duets they have. Talented as both librettist and soprano, she interprets Violetta with anguish and desire but could shape the music with more variety of dynamics and articulation. The intricacy of the coloratura in ‘Sempre libera’ is lost and we miss the spiritual quality of her final scene. Michael Georgiou as Sinclair, Elijah’s father, is the only one to compete with Marriott in volume with his strong yet lyrical voice. He adds a light-hearted mood at the beginning and, later, unnerving persuasion with Violetta and Elijah. Flora (Gemma Morsley) commands the stage as she oversees her nightclub but, despite showing her true vocal potential in a couple of instances, she is barely audible in the group passages.
Verdi’s ensemble writing is such an important part of his operas. The threads of the plot weave together and the parts need to be balanced to be able to appreciate the narrative and the music. A readjustment in certain sections would give everyone a chance to be heard. This ‘Traviata’ may not have the uplifting contrast of the big choruses or the intrigue of the sub plots, but its contemporary slant and abundance of wonderful arias make it an enjoyable taster for those unfamiliar with opera.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Bill Knight
King’s Head Theatre until 27th October
Previously reviewed at this venue;
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