A bout of amplified heavy-breathing opens Opera Holland Park’s 2018 season – its third as an independent company – to get us in the tubercular groove for its new production of Verdi’s La traviata. There are a few more directorial interjections to come, but otherwise Rodula Gaitanou’s staging is broadly traditional. Cordelia Chisholm’s fixed set of a gilded gallery of mirrors leading to a rotunda that adapts to saloon, conservatory and bedroom makes a virtue of OHP’s wide stage, and her belle époque costumes presents some shapely upholstery and a nod here and there to risqué transvestism. Gaitanou makes a point of isolating Violetta so that her vulnerability is never in doubt, and in general the direction is expansive rather than reductive, so that the opera never feels like a filleted version of something bigger.
From the laboured breathing onwards, Gaitanou asserts the urgency of a life slipping away – as Violetta surreptitiously spits blood she knows her days are numbered; a servant replaces some dead flowers with fresh ones; in the country setting Violetta becomes a delicate bloom. Initially, in Act One’s party, I doubted the likelihood of love-struck Alfredo and Violetta getting down to some passionate kissing in front of all the guests, but it is all part of Violetta’s pressured will to live. Gaitanou’s decision, however, not to have some sort of rapprochement between Alfredo’s outraged father Giorgio and Violetta in Act Two, as made clear in the libretto, doesn’t ring true, even though the dialogue itself is one of the highlights in the company of some excellent singing. Another is Violetta’s unsparing death scene, in which she is pulled cruelly between fragile life and encroaching death, the latter vividly drawn by her vision of the carnival revellers as a danse macabre, complete with a trio of grim-reapers.
The two leads spark off each other powerfully. Lauren Fagan is on commanding form as Violetta, as spellbinding in the coloratura and top register of ‘Sempre libera’ as she is in the miserable ebb and flow of her discourse with Giorgio, and the pale vocal timbre she applies to the death scene is all the stronger for her convulsive acting. Violetta meets her match in Matteo Desole’s Alfredo in a performance of warmth, passion and natural heft, the heroics of Act One contrasting brilliantly with his bewildered aggression in Act Three. Stephen Gadd’s Germont père offers a believable portrait of a gradual thawing of moral intransigence, and Ellie Edmonds’s spirited Annina and Nicholas Garrett’s Douphol stand out.
Matthew Kofi Waldren has become an OHP regular, and with good reason. He has an innate sense of Verdian style, keeping momentum simmering and very clear about nuance and colour. He is very attentive to the singers’ needs, and is as persuasive in detail as he is in the big ensembles and Finales. This is Opera Holland Park at the top of its game.