Sunday 2nd June 2019 – casting difficulty takes the gloss off a very enjoyable La Traviata.

To the Birley Centre for New Sussex Opera’s summer production. The NSO has been building a considerable reputation for its ground breaking productions of rarely performed operas with professional soloists, most recently exceptional performances of Stanford’s The Travelling Companion (see MAE’s post for 22nd November 2018) to be released as a CD in the autumn. In parallel with these major productions they have been presenting a smaller scale show focusing more on their amateur chorus though still using, often young, professionals in the more challenging roles. This year’s New Sussex Opera Chorus event was Verdi’s La Traviata. This, according to a note in the programme, has been the most performed opera worldwide for four of the last five years. (Which other opera pipped it to that honour in 2016/17? Answer at the end of this post.) Performing an opera this well known on a small budget may seem a hopeless task. How does one compete with the glittering extravaganzas put on in the big houses, or in this case with Zeffirelli’s majestic 1983 film featuring, in Act 1, Violetta’s shimmering rock crystal bedecked apartment. The answer is a simple one, as director Cate Couch realised, you don’t. A simple chaise longue (which doubles in Act 3 as Violetta’s death bed), a small table with a bottle of champagne and some red camellias. Similarly with the dance sequences in Act 2 Scene 2 how could the NSO chorus rival the ballet troupes attached to the great companies? Instead, taking account of the, shall we say, maturity of many members they played the Flamenco bailaors and bullfighters, with a knowing smile. Sensibly this was a “modern dress” production. Without being disparaging at all, the first party scene had the look of a 1950’s cocktail party in the suburbs, and Alfredo’s electric blue suit was a thing of wonder. The ensemble singing was excellent throughout. After the first few bars one ceased to notice the small size of the eleven piece orchestra. Ably conducted by Ben Knowles they coped admirably with the opera’s various moods ranging from the joyous happiness, through rural tranquillity, ominous foreboding and raging anger to final brief resurrection and desolate collapse.

Of course, to a large extent, any operatic performance is only as good as its principal singers. Jana Holesworth from Canada who played Violetta with great panache, is potentially a soprano of star quality. She is an excellent actor and her death scene was most moving. Sentimental soul that I am, I always judge a performance ofTraviata (and of La Boheme for that matter) by whether the tears well up. There was certainly more than una furtiva lagrima brimming here. She was well matched by her Alfredo, the likeable Salvadorian-American tenor Oswaldo Iraheta, who has sung a considerable range of roles both in the USA and abroad. He too is a convincing actor and a pleasing rich tenor voice. With the opera being sung in English his pronunciation was sometimes a little insecure, veering from North to South America, and back again. The third major role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, was sung by baritone Chris Childs Santos, and he was, I’m afraid, not a success in the role. He is a big man with a very big voice, but his acting seems very stiff and his vocal line is very inflexible singing each phrase in a similar way. Each note is sung with deliberation as a separate entity which seemed to give the conductor difficulties in keeping the music flowing. Another reviewer hearing him in another role felt that he had a certain menacing quality and suggested he would be well suited to play Iago in Verdi’s Otello. That menacing quality was evident here too, and while Germont does bring Violetta the dreadful news that she must give up Alfredo, he is not in himself evil. I see him instead as a stuffy old fool who is more concerned with society’s misplaced sense of propriety than with his son’s happiness. I’m sure there are roles that would suit Childs Santos well (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov springs to mind) but this was not it. The other professional singers, Deirdre McCabe, Olivia Bell, Nicholas George, and Steve Hawksley were sympathetic and convincing in their roles.

This was a thoughtful and enjoyable production. Casting of the principal parts must be very difficult for a small company. I thought Glyndebourne Touring Opera had problems casting this same opera last October (see my post for October 15th 2018). There must be only a limited number of affordable singers that know each role available for the planned performances. NSO get it right most of the time. (***)

(Answer to the question in paragraph one. Carmen pipped La Traviata to be the most performed opera in the world in 2016/17)

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