I should start by raving about the heroine, but I'm not going to. Instead, I'm throwing my usual practice to the wind and starting with the tenor, because Aldo Di Toro's Alfredo has a special place in my heart. This will probably sound strange, but it was Aldo's Alfredo three years ago which made me really understand the appeal of tenors. Oh, there were a few I didn't mind, and I rather liked Ian Bostridge, but could I love them the way I loved female voices? Not a chance. I tried a few times, got halfway there, but never quite managed it. Then along came Aldo (whom I'd already heard in Fedora) and somehow his Alfredo flicked the switch. I got it. Tenors became a part of my devotions, and have remained so. Perhaps it was just good timing on his part, although I suspect it was more than that; but whatever the reason, I'm permanently indebted to Aldo for facilitating that Damascus moment.
His Alfredo on opening night swept me off my feet all over again. He's still the only tenor who has really made me feel that La traviata could just as easily be an opera about Alfredo. His acting isn't what you'd call especially naturalistic — he's a bit melodramatic, really — and yet he's so passionate and so utterly sincere that I find him completely believable. And then there is that voice. That warm, golden, knee-weakening voice. He doesn't shy away from basking in that beauty a bit, spinning out radiant, dreamy sound, but nor does he rely solely on the (sigh) radiance of his timbre to get him through. He's as attentive to the meaning of the words as he is to the gorgeousness of them, and for all the flowing silk of his phrasing, there's a engaging, spoken quality to every word he sings. Even "Libiamo" has a fresh spontaneity to it, and when he gets to that final scene, well, he just breaks your heart.
Like Aldo, Elvira Fatykhova returns from that 2007 season. Back then, she and Aldo sang precisely one performance together — the one I saw — before Kate Ladner took over as the heroine. This time Opera Australia has wisely cast them together for the whole season. Vocally, they're pretty ideally matched. Both are graceful, delicate and relatively small-scale singers — not spinto powerhouses — and neither outsings (or outshouts) the other. These are two innately beautiful voices and the combination of them a gift for vocal fetishists.
Elvira's Violetta is all silver and pearly sheen. No coloratura passage is so intricate that she can't make light work of it, and her pianissimi must be some of the prettiest on the planet. When she floats that top note at the end of "Addio del passato", you could hear a pin drop — and you'd probably be moved to murder the fool who dropped it. Her voice is slender, not massive, but it can open up thrillingly, and even at high volume retains all its sweetness and precision. No wobbly, warbling courtesan, she; this Violetta's singing is all class. I do have to confess, however, that I find her characterisation rather too reserved. There's a slightly cool quality to her Violetta which, for me, makes her touching but not devastating — and we all know how I love to be devastated. Peter McCallum has a different take on this approach, with which many, I'm sure, will agree. It really comes down to personal taste: given my druthers, I'd just rather have a Violetta a little closer to the edge. But I don't intend to look a gift soprano in the mouth: she's still a very appealing Violetta, and her singing is surely some of the loveliest we'll hear all year.
Aldo and Elvira are between them afford more than enough pleasure for one Traviata, but Opera Australia is very generously throwing in Jonathan Summers as well, and at no extra charge. It's quite a privilege to have such an artist as our Giorgio Germont — it's a bit of a limiting role, after all, and yet with Jonathan on hand, Germont has all the force and towering dignity of a title character. He's full of rage when he comes to see Violetta, and he's not easily won over; it takes the whole of their encounter to unlock the benevolence within him, and even then, he doesn't completely unbend. His voice resounds with authority, righteous anger, and, gradually, with warmth. His loudness can be a little disconcerting when set against Aldo's and Elvira's lighter voices, but even at his blusteriest, he's never coarse — and he's always in character. At Monday's performance, he received what sounded to me like the most vociferous ovation of the evening. I don't expect that's an honour too often afforded to a Germont, but in this case it was entirely deserved.
The problem with Traviata is that absolutely all the significant solo singing is given to the three principals, and the rest of the cast is left to fight over the scraps — making it difficult for the singers in those roles to do anything hugely distinctive, except leave wanting more. Which, happily, is just what this supporting cast does. Dominica Matthews was a fine Flora three years ago, but she's even better now, with that slight edge to her voice now beautifully softened and all the more expressive. The presence of Stephen Bennett as Doctor Grenvil seems almost decadent — such a fine artist in such a tiny role — and yet, when it comes to the final act, the solemn dignity of his performance is precisely what the opera needs. Teresa La Rocca is an Annina whose twinkling clarity rivals the heroine's; in fact it wouldn't surprise me if the title role is already in her sights.
Shane Lowrencev's voice is as imposing as his height, and he does Affronted Baron better than anyone; Andrew Brunsdon is a gleeful, sneaky Gastone, who would surely twirl his moustache if it were longer. It's hard to do much more than simply name and congratulate the rest of the cast, so to Andrew Jones (d'Obigny), Jin Tea Kim (Giuseppe), Jonathan McCauley (Messenger) and Tom Hamilton — congratulations. All were good, nobody let the side down. The chorus is as excellent as ever: women resplendent in their corsets, men terribly amusing in their moustaches, and everyone singing with care and spirit. They're singers, and to a degree, actors; they're not dancers — and the space is very cramped — so one can probably forgive the silliness of gypsy/matador business at Flora's party, although surely it could be less awkwardly staged. Anyway, that's beside the point. They do everything else marvellously.
An excellent cast, then, and it's a lucky thing they are. Elijah Moshinsky's super-lavish production is very beautiful, and it's a good, straightfoward vehicle for story and score, but it's also spectacularly conventional (and conventionally spectacular) and without a cast as vibrant as this, it would be much less interesting. As it is, the staging has its longueurs, and some of the business seems faded and wearied by the exertions of so many revivals. I'm not saying it should be mothballed just yet — it's good to have some solid pieces like this in repertory, they're an opera company's equivalent of the LBD — but I do think the production needs greater re-invigoration than this revival (rehearsed by Richard Jones) provides. Perhaps bring in Cathy Dadd next time; she worked wonders with Fidelio, after all.
And I regret to say I'm disappointed in Philippe Auguin's conducting. He's good to his singers, I think, but beyond that I find his style less than moving. The impression I've had so far is that he's emphasising too heavily the bel canto aspects of Traviata, the rum-ti-tum and the flashy showpieces (which are nicely done), and losing the expressive, verismo side of it in the process. Yes, the opera has its roots in that earlier tradition, but it's also a gateway to a more natural and emotionally direct style, and I feel Auguin's approach needs a bit more sensual passion to really sing.
It occurred to me somewhere along the line that Opera Australia has managed a rather neat bit of programming by schedule La traviata and Manon side by side, since in their original literary forms, one makes quite significant use of the other. In Dumas's La dame aux camélias, Armand gives Marguerite a copy of the Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, and the parallels (and crucial differences) between the two women become a something of a motif. (I could claim to know this from having read the Dumas, but in fact I just remember it from Camille.) So even though La traviata makes no reference to Manon, having the operas so close together invites comparison just the same. Two scandalous yet well-intentioned heroines, two incarnations of the Parisian demi-monde, two stricken tenors, two interfering fathers, and the similarities continue.
I think Violetta and her opera still win on all counts. For all the common features in their stories, Violetta and Manon are more opposites than twins. In fact, in a sense I think each aspires to be the other — Manon starts out with simplicity and clutches at glamour, whereas Violetta abandons the high life for rural tranquillity and true love. And while Manon is undone by her own selfishness, it is Violetta's selflessness which leads her inevitably to ruin. I wonder if the fundamental difference isn't Violetta's illness. Manon is young and foolish and thinks she'll live forever; Violetta isn't that much older, but she's been forcibly reminded that she won't live forever — or even for very long. Unlike her frivolous cousin, she understands the consequences of her actions, and while the path she ultimately takes does resemble Manon's, the woman who navigates it could scarcely be more different. That's what makes her so much easier to love. Giorgio Germont has it right: she truly does deserve a better future.