Verdi’s most popular opera, La Traviata, tells a timeless tale of tragic love. Courtesan Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) falls in love with young Alfredo (Michael Fabiano), whose father Germont (Thomas Hampson) intervenes and puts an end to the young couple’s happy affair.
This filmed production from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, performed on an almost painfully bare, white stage interrupted only by the sight of Violetta’s scarlet dress, is directed by Nicola Luisotti. The set design leaves the audience in no doubt as to the psychological preoccupation of La Traviata’s heroine. The oversized white wall clock immediately visible downstage-left as the curtain rises at the top of the opera, almost never leaves the scene. It is accompanied by another near-permanent presence —that of a wizened figure whose mere existence succeeds in disturbing Violetta’s sempre libera approach to life, as she is constantly reminded of her impending death of consumption.
Yoncheva’s interpretation of this seminal soprano role is a triumph. Her warm tone allows her to explore the role’s dramatic depths, while her nimble high register makes for an effortless foray into the more acrobatic phrases. The soprano uses her whole body to express truthfully Violetta’s mad yearning for her new love, whilst also bringing to life the inebriated, determined woman who kicks off her shoes and defies Time, swearing to live only for pleasure in Sempre libera. When Violetta declares that she had been ‘too happy’, acknowledging that her joy would inevitably have come to an end, Yoncheva’s face betrays great emotion, with a distinctly quivering lip caught by the HD camera. Yoncheva projects an affirmative ‘Sí’ with enough spirit and clarity of timbre that one would be convinced of her vocal prowess after hearing that single syllable even if one had somehow missed the rest of the opera.
The soprano’s expert handling of the quick descending runs in Un di, felice, eterea is impressive, and her voice melds seamlessly with Fabiano’s, whose boyish demeanour makes him the perfect choice for the love-struck Alfredo. Both singers’ contributions are sonorous, rich, and heartfelt, with never so much as a faltering between semitones. The singers don’t have to work very hard to convince the audience of their characters’ mutual attraction, as the tension mounts very quickly. In Act II, the lovers inhabit a much less starkly decorated set as they celebrate their love in a country apartment. Fabiano’s Alfredo goes from doting to determined in under ten seconds, and exits the scene on a triumphant note.
Thomas Hampson lends his remarkably pure lyrical baritone to the production in the role of Germont, Alfredo’s worried father. Hampson’s sympathetic approach to this character, who drives the young lovers apart, invites the audience to engage with Germont as more than just the perfunctory antagonist.
In fact, the opera’s real antagonist remains Time throughout all three acts. The chorus, a rather terrifying band of men (and women) in suits, echoes the ticking clock in its collective movements, and is at times a menacing reminder of the brutality and insensitivity of the world Violetta is soon to leave. The celebratory, joyful sounds of the gypsy interlude belie the nightmarish nature of the scenario in which the masked chorus moves in frightening synchronised steps.
Violetta’s dying moments in Act III are interpreted in soaring fashion, and Yoncheva’s delivery betrays very little vocal fatigue after such a long and demanding performance. Hearing the dying Violetta so gloriously defiant and angry even at the very end is in itself worth the very modest price of admission.
The Met’s 2017 production of La Traviata is an uncomplicated, striking celebration of Verdi’s music, and would allow even listeners with a very limited knowledge of the art form a very accessible entry point to the world of Violetta and her tragic (yet musically satisfying) story.
La Traviata will be showing at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront between 8 and 18 April. The running time is 2 hours and 33 minutes (including an interval in which the poor performers are forced to answer a number of inane questions about their roles). Visit www.sterkinekor.com for tickets, or phone Ticketline on 0861 668 437.