What makes a great performance? Why is it that the memory of seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev perform Swan Lake, or Bronhill perform The Merry Widow can stay in the mind for a lifetime? Whatever the answer, Ermonela Jaho’s performance as Violetta on the opening night of Opera Australia’s 2017 revival of La Traviata was one of those performances.
Elijah Moshinsky’s production has long been a glittering jewel in Opera Australia’s repertoire. The extravagant set and costume designs by Michael Yeargan and Peter J Hall, still look as gorgeous as ever.
Over the years they’ve framed the performances of a succession of superb Violettas, and having been fortunate to have seen many of those performances, it was hard not to approach this latest revival with the feeling that every possible nuance of the role had been experienced.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. From her very first entrance, Jaho captured her audience with the intensity of her performance, the brilliance of her singing, her complete immersion in the role and an interpretation so electrifying, it was immediately obvious that here was a Violetta like none who had gone before.
Signalling that this Violetta was an ill woman, and knew it, she was no shrinking violet however. The perfect hostess, at pains to mask her discomfort from her guests, she led the gaiety with enthusiasm and flirted outrageously with her male guests, particularly the interesting young newcomer, Alfredo. However, a declaration of love from Alfredo forces Violetta to examine her options, which upon reaching her decision, she announces it in a startlingly defiant, bravura, Sempre libera.
Her heartbreak in the second act, when Alfredo’s father, Germont, demands that she give up Alfredo, to save his family’s reputation, and her utter distress later, at Flora’s party, when Alfredo humiliates her in front of all the guests, were devastatingly portrayed.
But as brilliant as she had been in the preceding acts, it was in the final scene in the decaying remnants of her once magnificent apartment, when the stricken Violetta is now near death, that Jaho is at her most devastating, totally subjugating her vocal and acting technique to the service of the role. It was a virtuoso performance that brought her audience to their feet, and she rewarded their accolade with an extraordinary bow which drew gasps throughout the auditorium.
Lest you gain the impression from the above that this was a one-person performance, nothing could be further from the truth. Her Alfredo was Korean tenor, Ho-Yoon Chung, who with his lustrous Italianate vocal sheen, and youthful passion, managed to garner sympathy for his character’s unreasonable jealousy and boorish behaviour.
Elsewhere Opera Australia had wisely cast some of its finest singer/actors to add additional lustre to this revival. Jose Carbo was dignified and quite magnificent as Germont. Adrian Tamburini oozed quiet menace as Violetta’s jealous protector, Baron Douphol, Dominica Matthews, as Violetta’s glamorous friend, Flora, and Samuel Dundas as Flora’s protector, the Marquis d’Obigny, each contributed superbly detailed performances.
Surrounding them Opera Australia’s magnificent chorus, demonstrated yet again, with their fine singing and total dramatic engagement, why they are regarded as one of the finest opera ensembles in the world.
In the final scene Gennadi Dubinsky as Doctor Grenvil, and Natalie Aroyan, as Violetta’s maid, Annina, showed how powerful these relatively small roles can become in the hands of fine performers, their restrained, sympathetic performances focussing attention on the three protagonists.
Maintaining the magic, from the very first notes of the haunting prelude, maestro Renato Palumbo was in his element, allowing each singer enough space to blossom, while fastidiously exposing each aural highlight of Verdi’s musical masterpiece. This was opera of the highest order, and the result was a performance that few among those who experienced it are likely to forget.
Ermonela Jaho’s performances in La Traviata continue until 18 February, following which two of Opera Australia’s finest sopranos will take over the role. Lorina Gore will perform Violetta opposite Ho-Yoon Chung as Alfredo, from 23 February until 4 March inclusive, following which Emma Matthews will team with Armenian tenor, Liparit Avetisyan from 6 March until the season ends on 1 April 2017 inclusive.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Friday 3 February 2017 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 1 April 2017
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valéry and Ho-Yoon Chung as Alfredo Germont in Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata – photo by Keith Saunders
Review: Bill Stephens OAM