Opening Melbourne’s autumn season in lavish style Wednesday evening – again, not for the first time – long-standing subscribers and those anointed by their first experience were inescapably immersed into famed courtesan Violetta Valéry’s 19th century world and her tragic story.
La Traviata can succeed or fail on the basis of its leading lady. On this occasion, the consumption-inflicted young courtesan who turns her back on demi-monde hedonism for a chance at love was magnificently and achingly rendered by soprano Stacey Alleaume in an intoxicating hometown role debut performance.
Alleaume has developed into an actor and singer of the highest order, having come through the ranks of the company and now triumphing in one of opera’s most identified and challenging roles.
Utilising her petite frame in an always-convincing manner and plunging deep into Violetta’s emotional core, Alleaume packed every complexity into her performance. Alleaume possesses a heftily supported and richly characterful voice that exhibits both creaminess and purity and is a judicious artist who knows how to sell the best of her vocal assets.
From the outside joie de vivre she portrayed in the opening scene to the physical frailty of a consumptive in the final act, Alleaume made Violetta’s journey a palpable, heart wrenching and meaningful encounter.
In Act 2, at Violetta’s country house outside Paris, where she learns that she must sacrifice her love for Alfredo in order not to damage the family’s reputation, Alleaume was at her dramatic best. Her Violetta burst with love and anguish while carrying the weight of death.
And when it was imminent in the final act – composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave encapsulate its depth and pathos astonishingly – she gave so much that her Violetta was our great loss too. You never forget how a person makes you feel.
Everything about Verdi and Piave’s 1853 opera feels dramatically taut, anticipatory and lastingly etched – achieving that in just four tableaux with music of melodic expressive breadth.
In Moshinsky’s respectful interpretation (under revival director Constantine Costi), those four tableaux are a tour de force of creative design. Violetta’s sumptuously appointed salon, the courtyard outside her country villa, the Moorish exoticism at her friend Flora’s party and the faded glory of her surroundings as she wastes away in death are brought together marvellously in Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter Hall’s costumes and Nigel Levings’ lighting.
First impressions are everything and they excelled when the curtain went up opening night. Not so, however, when Korean tenor Ho-Yoon Chung, as Alfredo, stepped forward to confirm to Violetta his affections for her. It wasn’t a flattering Melbourne debut with acting that was wooden, a pallid delivery of lines and the following Brindisi underwhelming and underpowered.
Chung finds his feet and the vocal steam when Alfredo is in his more enraged states, both when Alfredo reacts to his father’s manipulative commands to return to his family and later when denouncing Violetta in front of Flora’s guests. But Chung was no believable match for Alleaume and a lack of eye contact and chemistry only added to that disappointment.
As Alfredo’s strict and eventually remorseful father, Giorgio, Italian baritone Mario Cassi – similarly in a Melbourne debut – made a strapping, distinguished figure and backed that up with deeply resonant, authoritative and vibrato-effective vocals.
Among the smaller roles, Agnes Sarkis acquitted herself commendably and in vivacious style as Violetta’s friend and rival, Flora, having stepped in for the indisposed Celeste Haworth. Andrew Moran led the black-tie men’s club in commanding voice and excelled as Marquis d’Obigny and Danita Weatherstone served the narrative with a gentle and sympathetic touch as Violetta’s maid, Annina.
The Opera Australia Chorus packed the set’s confines in splendid voice, the crescendos that mark the conclusion of Act 2, when the guests rebuke Alfredo for insulting Violetta, a particularly memorable highlight.
Italian conductor Renato Palumbo’s welcome presence in the pit provided the evening with an exceptional musical foundation. The tempi breathed with life, the dramatic sculpturing resonated outstandingly and a wonderful synergy was achieved between stage and pit.
Palumbo understands his singers well. Orchestra Victoria played at the top of their game, from the finesse of the ethereal strings to the combined explosive orchestral forces.
After almost three decades since premiering, Moshinsky’s production never fails to impress. But, in its convincing and unswerving descriptive clarity, it is with the adornment of an accomplished leading lady that makes it truly remarkable. Stacey Alleaume is that critical ingredient and a must for an opera-interested public to experience.
State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 4 May 2022
Season continues to 28 May 2022
For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Stacey Alleaume as Violetta Valéry and Ho-Yoon Chung as Alfredo Germont in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of La Traviata at Arts Centre Melbourne – photo by Jeff Busby
Review: Paul Selar