Last Updated on October 31, 2021
Lisette Oropesa shines as Violetta
It’s the 27th anniversary of Richard Eyre’s landmark production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and we were invited to the opening night at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. La Traviata has one of the great operatic storylines encompassing sex, death, grand passion, family honour and finally tragedy and combined with Verdi’s powerful melodies (you’ll know them even if you think you don’t) it makes a perfect opera for a novice to the art form. La Traviata marks the end of the vocal-led ‘Bel Canto’ period in opera and moves towards a greater depth of characterisation, narrative realism (verismo) and contemporary settings in a way that would have been novel and sometimes shocking for contemporary audiences but makes it accessible to all now.
Both Western popular and high art cultures have long fetishised the tragic heroine. We feed greedily off stories as diverse as Juliet and Ophelia, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. Verdi composed La Traviata in 1853 and it is based on the true story of Marie Duplessis with the opera being adapted from Alexander Dumas the younger’s 1852 play La Dame aux Camélias. As a girl, Duplessis had been sold to a paedophile by her father when just 13. She ended up as one of France’s greatest ‘grandes horizontales’, with lovers including writers such as Dumas himself, the composer Franz Liszt and several aristocrats.
The narrative of the opera traces the relationship of a beautiful courtesan called Violetta with a bourgeois if inexperienced young man, of good family, called Alfredo who has admired her from afar. With sensational Cuban-American soprano Lisette Oropesa, last seen at the ROH as a wonderful Gilda in Rigoletto, as Violetta, and Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan as Alfredo, this production has two top-notch voices as the lovers. Whilst this is Oreposa’s show with the opening night audience giving her a deserved ovation, Avetisyan as Alfredo has developed his reading of the part since I last saw him in 2019. His characterisation is now more dramatically satisfying, less adolescent, priggish and naive and now more mature although still overwhelmed by an all-encompassing passion. The couple meet at a party at Violetta’s salon where Alfredo sings the famous lubricious drinking song waltz (known as a brindisi) “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (Let’s drink from the joyful cups) and declares his love to the less certain Violetta in the gorgeous romantic duet Un dì, felice, eterea – “One day, happy, ethereal”. Violetta gradually falls for Alfredo’s wooing and Oreposa handles her character’s emotional journey with tremendous subtlety as well as some fantastic singing. Oreposa’s voice has a clarity, focus and passion as well as the technical ability to master the composer’s fast melismatic scalar passages.
Act 2 opens in Violetta’s country house outside Paris where the couple are now living. With vertiginous duck-egg blue walls and French doors and with paintings scattered around, Bob Crowley’s set suggests both calm and impermanence, contrasting with the rich golden hues and opulence of Violetta’s Paris apartment. Alfredo’s father Giorgio, wonderfully acted and sung by German baritone Christian Gerhaher, visits and convinces the sickly Violetta to give up Alfredo as the immorality of their relationship is threatening to derail the engagement of his daughter – “Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia” (Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter). Violetta finally relents with Oreposa showing emotional and technical mastery in the duet “Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura” (Tell the young girl, so beautiful and pure), earning Giorgio’s admiration in the process. Gerhaher manages to humanise the part of Giorgio which often comes over as a stiff, patriarchal caricature as well being able to push Oreposa to the top of her game.
On his return, Oropesa as Violetta sings to Alfredo “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’ io t’amo – (Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you) showing a real tenderness before returning to Paris to take up with an old lover. After various shenanigans including some splendid dancing matadors and an off-stage duel, we get to the final act. Opening with the same plangent high strings that open the overture, sensitively managed by conductor Antonello Manacorda, we see that Violetta is dying, waiting for a final reconciliation with Alfredo and Giorgio who eventually arrive.
Avetisyan as Alfredo captures the romantic fantasy of his suggestion that the tragic lovers leave Paris with a real delicacy of feeling– “Violetta: Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo” (We will leave Paris, O beloved). But Violetta knows her time is up – “o Gran Dio!…morir sì giovane” (Great God!…to die so young) and the inevitable happens with Oreposa leaving the audience feeling bereft and drained.
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, London,
From 27 October 2021–18 April 2022
For this season’s schedule do check our summary of what’s on at the Royal Opera House
For something completely different in London’s West End, check our review of The Shark is Broken, showing now at the Ambassadors Theatre