La Traviata review – Lauren Fagan's Violetta dazzles in OHP's fine show

Opera Holland Park, London
Rodula Gaitanou’s thoughtful production brings insight and clarity to Verdi’s tragedy

Rodula Gaitanou’s new production of La Traviata for Opera Holland Park opens not with Verdi’s prelude but with the alarming sound of laboured breathing, of someone gasping for air and life. It’s a provocative start to a thoughtful, troubling interpretation that carefully and insistently reminds us that the opera’s tragedy lies in its confrontation with encroaching mortality.

When the familiar opening string phrases steal in, we encounter Lauren Fagan’s Violetta spitting blood, while her maid, Anina (Ellie Edmonds), prepares her for the party at which her world will be overturned when she meets Matteo Desole’s gauchely attractive Alfredo. We are in the decadent fin-de-siècle Paris of Proust, where time is rapidly running out. Cordelia Chisholm’s set, meanwhile, resembles a glasshouse, where Violetta is displayed like some exquisite bloom admired for her beauty but discarded when it fades. When she surrenders Alfredo to Stephen Gadd’s smugly moralistic Germont père, her consumption immediately reasserts its grip. At the end, Anina and Doctor Grenvil (Henry Grant Kerswell) hover at her bedside, overseeing a death for which, we suddenly realise, they have been preparing all along.

Musically, it’s extremely strong. Matthew Kofi Waldren, conducting the City of London Sinfonia, propels the score urgently forward, admirably avoiding sentimentality. Fagan, one of today’s finest young sopranos, is exceptional throughout and a superb actor. Her tone blazes with existential defiance and desperation, and she possesses both the agility for act one – Sempre Libera is capped by a dazzling top E flat – and the dramatic weight for the closing scenes.

Desole’s passion and sullen rage are entirely convincing, though a bit more dynamic variation in his singing would not go amiss. Gadd hectors his music on occasion, but is tremendously dignified and authoritative in the second act finale. The smaller roles – including Laura Woods’ dominatrixy Flora, Charne Rochford’s vapid Gastone and Nicholas Garrett’s arrogant Douphol – are all cast from strength and really register as characters for once, which is a measure both of Opera Holland Park’s high ensemble values and Gaitanou’s painstaking direction.

  • At Opera Holland Park, London, until 23 June. Box office: 0300-999 1000.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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