Words by Althea Patterson / Production pics by Bill Cooper
One asks the question, is opera is accessible to all? I’ve loved it since I heard Luciano Pavarotti sing during the 1990 World Cup – and chances are many will first experience opera through a crossing of mediums; absorbing ringtones or advertising, then wondering why they’ve been humming a 200 year old Italian aria all day.
So when Welsh National Opera’s (WNO) production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata came to the Birmingham Hippodrome, I was interested to see who would be in the audience as well as the performers on stage. I love opera on a personal level, but went armed with very seasoned and critical opera-goers; it would be interesting to see how their reaction compared with mine.
WNO’s La Traviata is part of their Fallen Women series, telling the three Act story of Violetta Valery – the ‘woman who strayed’ in this production, played by Linda Richardson. Violetta is dying, due to her abusive life as a courtesan, and moves to the country to live and ‘love free’ with Alfredo – a man who loves her intensely.
But after an impassioned plea from Alfredo’s father, Violetta leaves her lover and returns to her old life – sacrificing her love for Alfredo for what she sees as her duty, only for them to be reconciled on her deathbed.
It’s a pretty sad story; one that needs strong, skilled actors to emphasise the point. If you watch, for example, Maria Callas in her famous 1964 rendition of Tosca, or more recently Angela Gheorghiu in this same role, this importance on delivery becomes clearer. I’ve grown up watching classic opera of the sixties so my expectations were pretty high tonight.
WNO’s La Tarviata opens with a vivacious ‘Libiamo’, the drinking song of frivolity; 19th century high society informing us poor folk how much fun they’re having. I sunk into the beautiful Hippodrome surroundings and set for the evening.
I love the introduction of Ji-Min Park as Alfredo; I was expecting a tall suave Bond type, but this slim Korean chap playing the love struck male lead really brought a smile to my face. However on the duet ‘A, Fors E Lui’, I didn’t fully believe the love between the two principal characters, their acting both sometimes leaving a little to be desired and their duet off/on timing. Indeed my more opera learned friend commented “they subsidised form over content”.
Moving on through Violetta’s anguished meeting with her Alfredo’s father in the country, in a steady Act 2, I further enjoy the bawdy Matador dance in Act 3; much flirtation and sass bringing great humour and a touch of Follies Berges chic to the show, generating a deservedly loud applause.
During the interval I scanned the theatre, with the question of accessibility still in my mind. I went with (fairly) youthful friends and found ourselves dominated by silver haired folk. Although I did count a few groups of WAGs, and to my delight a gaggle of primary schoolchildren who were impeccably behaved throughout; their attention no doubt assisted by the surreal-to-see English subtitles (an LED board high above the stage relaying the words – very helpful for those not familiar with the libretto).
Coming back to Act 3, La Traviata’s finale was played out on a sparse but visually sumptuous set. I found Richardson’s rendition of Violetta’s deathbed scene, ‘Addio del Passato’, especially touching and delicate.
I enjoy the step out of life that opera brings me, and it is wonderful to hear arias tonight I’d been listening to for years, sung live and loud. But overall I feel there is more to be had form this company.
And in regards to accessibility, I think I need to keep asking the question. Tonight I dressed to the nines and didn’t feel a bit out of place given the ‘theatre’ of it all, but would I feel as comfortable (or indeed be as welcomed) in my Adidas and jeans?
To be continued, with both labour and love. Along with a circling attention to what Welsh National Opera, and other less prominent companies, will be bringing to Birmingham. Something I sincerely look forward to exploring.
Welsh National Opera’s La Traviata will be at the Birmingham Hippodrome on March 8th, with further shows across the country until April 12th.
For more details, alongside further info on the wider company, visit http://www.wno.org.uk/
For further listings from the Birmingham Hippodrome, visit http://www.birminghamhippodrome.com