Mar 28, 2012

REVIEW: La traviata | Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

It would seem like a bloody good idea. Exploit our incontestably jaw-dropping harbour as a sophisticated backdrop par excellence for opera. Certainly, especially given Sydney's mani

Emma Matthews in La traviata | Opera on the Harbour

It would seem like a bloody good idea. Exploit our incontestably jaw-dropping harbour as a sophisticated backdrop par excellence for opera. Certainly, especially given Sydney’s manifest climatic variability of late, one couldn’t have hope for a more clement opening evening.

The infrastructure that’s been installed on Mrs. Macquarie’s Point, within the Royal Botanic Gardens, is massive. And impressive. Even the loos are quite special. It’s like a mini-me city that’s sprung up almost overnight, a cutting, perhaps, from a more complete, root-and-branch metropolis.

Of course, to make it into the so-called Platinum Lounge, with its facade echoing the faux, ‘gilt-framed’ stage, one has to be as comprehensively Helena Rubinsteined as Bronny Bishop, or shimmering as Kerri-Anne. The rest of us, merely plebeian punters, are ironically subject to $12-a-glass sparkling and $11 sangas. So, while the idea is to attract ‘new markets’ to opera, not much seems to have been done to bring pricing down to earth. I mean, a double-cheeseburger at Maccas is only two bucks. And, if you dispense carefully, a decent dry red can fill a hip-flask for precious little.

The point here is one has to wonder whether Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini and CEO Adrian Collette aren’t being somewhat disingenuous. I mean, who or what are these new markets? Is it people who might otherwise go to barrack for the Swannies? Or will people who were setting aside cash for Legally Blonde stump-up, instead, for La trav? I just don’t understand the thinking. And I’m not sure they do either; even if the likes of Dr Haruhisa Handa and his IFAC (which must be one of the unhappiest acronyms ever) Foundation, Barry O’Farrell and the usual clutch of corporate backers is underwriting the whole shebang.

Already, the powers that be are showing brazen determination and confidence, talking in terms of years and great operas on the harbour to come. I hope it works out. I’m all for new contexts, big ideas and democratisation. It’s just that theory and practice seem to be quite dissonant.

There are the prices of which I’ve spoken, even if one can secure a seat for around $100. And there’s the ever-present danger that, particularly on a good night, the very attractions that underpin the idea will consort and unwittingly conspire to overwhelm the staged spectacle. The most luminous stars aren’t necessarily confined to the stage, either. This tends to up the ante and pressure on the producers to make the work a real show-stopper.

This, for mine, is the root of the problem. Verdi’s opera should stand on its own merits. Verdi himself wanted it to be staged in contemporary dress, way back when, but lost the argument. It seems to me a fitting homage (and a missed opportunity) to carry out the composer’s wishes now.

La traviata may be a comparatively ‘low-key’ opera, but the ‘spectacle’ is and ought to be intrinsic, not extrinsic, by way of a contrived stage and largely superfluous fireworks. These may sit with a party scene, but are hardly necessary. Or novel. Even if the single explosive finale makes for a mindful metaphor of Violetta’s ascendant soul. (Why not confine the pyrotechnics to this and forego the gimmick of fireworks as the audience vacates the venue?)

This is where I began to run into problems with this new venture for OA. I remarked to my partner that I felt I’d be time-travelled back to the gaudy ’80s, such was the taste, or lack thereof, that pertained. I found myself hankering, even as I watched and listened, for a bare, stark, all-white stage, against which a few glorious costumes and performances would truly stand out. I’d like to see some minimalism prevail just occasionally; a less-is-more sensibility which recalls and celebrates the essential. Sometimes the theatre can be in the mind, even at the opera. Let us see some negative space for a change.

The cast of La traviata | Opera on the Harbour

I’ve a grave, nagging fear, you see, that OA is in mortal danger of losing itself in its own storeroom, such that we only hear ghostly echoes, melodies being eaten up by relics of massive sets; visual dinosaurs preying upon fragile, aural eggs. The egg, of course, being already perfect and utterly complete, needing no grand gestures that aren’t already present compositionally, vocally or dramatically.

I like a well-designed, well-constructed set as much as the next opera fan but, just as too much caviar is worse than none at all, it’s the abstinence that makes the pleasure all the deeper. As it is, on my own reflection, I could discern no particular point in a hamfisted evocation of an ornate mirror; perhaps Brian Thomson (and director Francesca Zambello) should hold one up for a second look.

Was the (doubtless) massive expense of a nine-metre chandelier (still tacky, even if it was Swarovski) really worth it? Was the decadence in, say, the baron’s patronage of Violetta, or OA’s extravagance in the here-and-now?

Moreover, the stage listed at a vertiginous angle, its aquatic disposition thus making it worryingly reminiscent of the Titanic, or Costa Concordia. But this was the Costa Lotta and yet, by the look of it, no matter where one is seated, the view of it one way or another is compromised. Worse still, there was no visible orchestra pit (or not to me), resulting in disengagement neither customary nor welcome. The sound was thin and lacked dynamics. And the ‘Madonna mikes’ foisted on the performers proved awkward, too sensitive and sometimes resulted in unwanted bumps and scuffs.

By now, you’re getting it: I was expecting and was supposed to be blown away, but was instead underwhelmed, disappointed and even a little depressed by the turn OA has taken. Good on ’em for having a go, that’s for sure. It’s just that it doesn’t really work.

What does are the principal performances, the ever-lovable orchestra and Brian Castles-Onion’s conducting. Emma Matthews (Violetta) will rightfully consolidate her beloved status with the opera-going public — her delivery is, at times, surpassing and thrilling. Likewise, the quality and power Gianluca Terranova (Violetta’s diehard lover) and Jonathan Summers (Alfredo’s father) display is outstanding

So, go for their sake. And Verdi’s. Close your eyes. Or avert them, to admire the harbour icons, night sky, or ferries slinking their way to Manly and back. It’s definitely worth a listen. I’m just not convinced it’s worth a look. Or a $9 beer (though you might need it). Nice try. No cigar.

The details: The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of La traviata at Mrs Macquaries Point in the Royal Botanic Gardens has 14 more performances until April 15. Tickets via Ticketmaster or on the OA website.

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12 thoughts on “REVIEW: La traviata | Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

  1. Lloyd Bradford Syke

    oh-so-sophisticated? moi?! tone, I can hardly compete with your invocation of escher, or parisian fin de siecle settings. modern? moi?! I still have flares in m wardrobe. as for wearing one’s politics on one’s sleeve, methinks you betray yourself as a paid-up member of le petit bourgeois.

    opera at maccas? now there’s something I’d like to see!

  2. Tony Stolarek

    We flew up from Melbourne to see the performance. Bellissimo production. I hope it’s a great success financially and a precursor to more such productions in the future.

    This review surprised me. The reviewer tries to be oh so sophisticated and oh so modern – wanting an all white setting for the opera. Maybe the reviewer also wants it done in as kabuki to distance it from the people who love opera. And then the reviewer told us he’d prefer to see negative space. I’ve seen negative space – the review is a perfect example of same.

    We came from Melbourne, being keen operagoers. The production was glorious. We saw Emma Matthews (she’s not on every night, understandably, in quite a long show run).

    The stage and setting were outstanding – the diamond lozenge stage was dressed fairly minimally with the chandelier, some Escheresque stairs, the the world’s longest grey leather chesterfield and grey glitter party table. It was a modernised La Dolce Vita design – upscale Eurotrash – completely in keeping with the theme of the opera (after all Violetta is a good time girl and Alfredo leeches off her for several months without thinking of how she’s financing him and her country house and city pleasure palace). I commented to our group how clever the design was as compared with the usual Parisian fin de siecle settings. The chandelier worked, providing historical allusions and other design and lighting opportunities, also perfectly aligned to the opera’s ‘book’.

    Superb audio (the sound design and mix so well controlled that it enabled us to hear not only the dynamic range of the performers singing strongly while we could also hear the sobs and breathing in the relevant scenes – very advanced audio desk).

    This was a wonderful night of opera showing how opera is the pinnacle of musical art, with the high artistic experience that comes from bringing together great direction (bravo Francesca Zambella), great artists, excellent staging and production and excellent music. Great opera is not the same as a glorified CD or a concert in a minimalist stage but engages the visual senses also.

    Emma Matthews as Violetta was just outstanding, and continues to rise in the opera firmament – her singing was spine-tingling. Is there anything she can’t do outstandingly: I’m sure we’ll see her stature rise internationally. Gianluca Terranova as Alfredo sang strongly, their duets were glorious, and the entire production was wonderful.

    Bellissimo production. I hope it’s a great success financially and a precursor to more such productions in the future.

    Audience members can confidently come from Melbourne (as we did) or Perth or from overseas (we spoke with a couple from NZ who also loved it) to enjoy the artistry. The production did Australia proud. Well done to all and you should all go see it as well.

    I should return to the review’s complaint about the price of food. We had our pre-dinner food and drinks at one of the numerous mid-price eating areas and had good food and drinks at reasonable price, with magnificent Harbour views, at a very reasonable price that was less than we paid at any restaurant in Sydney other than the MCA cafe. And then comparing the food and drink prices with Maccas: I can’t recall too many operas performed at Maccas.

    Fireworks? Nice even if unnecessary, but I can understand them as additional decoration for a purpose built stage. The performances at Sydney Myer Music Bowl play entirely differently and indeed have different economics sue to it being a permanent performance space unlike this one time event.

    The reviewer has conflated two different lines of analysis into this ‘review’, a review of the performance and a statement of political principles which they wear on their chest. I prefer in opera reviews to see a reaction to the opera. If you must tell us that you’d prefer a La Traviata directed by Barrie Kosky on a white stage and whiteface like his Turandot, I suggest you do that in another story, thanks.

  3. Lloyd Bradford Syke

    Bradley indeed!

  4. Carter Suzanne

    In my view Lloyd Bradley Syke has had the benefit of too much of a good thing. I have been visiting Sydney for the past week from offshore and decided to attend the performance at short notice on Friday night – review notwithstanding. To showcase any opera of international standard outside utilizing the beautiful Sydney backdrop was gutsy and simply breathtaking. The set is one of the most efficient and striking I have seen; it supported but did not overwhelm the performance at any moment. The striking Chandelier was not overused but remained core to the performance, and will probably prove a great sponsorship investment for Swarovski considering the focus it has received. The voices of Violetta, Alfredo and Giacomo were outstanding and the orchestra consistently good.

    Ah and the fireworks…extrinisic… intrinsic! Stark white backdrops of indoor entertainment are a dime a dozen compared to experiencing a new expose with tooting tugs in the background. If anything this performance demonstrated the talent on the stage was as good as anything, as the cast overcame what cannot be managed.

    While I understand that opera officianados want to grow new audiences it is reviews such as this that completely derail the interest of people that would no doubt enjoy accessible performances such as this. We pay to take pleasure from someone else’s craft…some of us save to enjoy the pleasure of a special performance. Don’t buy the beer, don’t get caught up in the theory, who cares…get into the moment and be grateful that you have such talent on your doorstep.

  5. Grover Jones

    I really wish that Opera Australia, or Oz Opera would spend more time in the great city of Perth. The WA Opera is very good, but the simple fact of the matter is that OA is the pinnacle in this country, and we’re lucky if we get them every second year. We’re really not that far away.

  6. Eva

    I bought my daughter, who is 23, and I tickets to La Traviata at $80 each. Neither of us have been to an opera before but have a love of music and theatre and are looking forward to the experience. What caught my eye in advertising for La Traviata was the reasonable price and spectacular setting – having attended the St George cinema in the same location many times. Looking forward to tomorrow evening – new life experience, spectacular harbour, balmy weather, music, a glass or two of wine, easy access to public transport and all at a reasonable price. Sounds like a good Saturday night to me!

  7. Lloyd Bradford Syke

    Ed, you speak as a true Melbournian. Up here, in the global city, we’re not so starved of harbour views that we need yet more fireworks to celebrate ’em. Still, glad to be of service to the tourists. No, a spectacular Sydney experience is no bad thing for OA to be associated with. I’m just not sure this production qualifies as such.

    Bondles, I’m with you: if OA is serious about ‘new audiences’, what you describe is the way to go. Why not move Opera In The Domain harbour side and make it a free-for-all?

    Salla, I’m all for making opera more accessible. But Bondles has sussed the franchise on that. I find it a remarkable conceit you believe you can discern the home-turf of punters by their accents. That takes stereotyping to a whole new level. But I agree: opera ought to be consumable via a range of media. I don’t think comparing exorbitant nightclub drink prices (why is everyone so focussed on tis aside?) is a way of justifying similarly elitist pricing at the opera. Get a major bubbly sponsor and make the first glass free. What a spectacular promotion that would make. And so in keeping with Violetta’s lavish lifestyle, which she extends to her friends.

    Big Dog. Take your point. But even the ‘killerjoules’ in a double-cheeseburger taste good in the moment. Whereas I found fireworks rather devoid of taste. Besides, La Traviata can never, should never be junk food. That’s what Legally Blonde’s for. Movies? I can’t afford popcorn and Coke at the movies. And there are a lot of people like me, in that respect. That’s the point.

    Almost noone could be a bigger fan or advocate for OA than I. Have you read my other reviews? I’m just not a fan of this one. OK?

  8. John Baker

    Mr Skye does make some good points, especially about new audiences,most of the folk near me looked like the same crowd from opening nights at the opera house. But thats ok. I think an axe to grind with new audiences and the stupid way in which OA is touting this opera as its spearhead to attract them needs to be said, but seperate to an opera review. You should call Mr Terracini and Mr Collete and blast them in an article seperate from this evening. I wanted a review about the opera, three quaters of this article is a complaint on the vehicle and what was presented. Verdi lost his argument because Opera in that day was played primarily to the rich aristocratic anyway,as is today. Big bucks and politics is why opera has survived world wars,economic crisis after crisis,things havent changed. But, to ask the questions and not review the opera properly takes alot away from the hard work put into this project by so many. Singers,dancers,costume designers,choreography,musicians,producers,volunteers,actors,orchestra that make this a splendid evening.
    I absolutley agree that if you dont like it write as critic and obviously this didnt work for you but not to mention the drama,if it worked. You obviously don’t know the music as you would have understood that Ms Mathews was sing so indulgently that alot of it was for effect and not not what Verdi wrote, but as an effect on stage,she made it look great. Nor was there any mention of no real chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo but they both sang well,it was a park and bark from those too. This a success for Ms Mathews but only here in Australia, she wouldn’t never sing this role overseas.
    She manages this role and shines in all the colorturra passages,but that is because she is that, a colorturra soprano,the rest of the role is managed well and admirably,but a Violetta of international standing,no. A doll in Hoffman yes,but,she puts bums on seats.

    The rest of the cast have worked overseas in their roles and sing well from the beautiful voice of Gianlucca to the sturdy baritone of Johnathan Summers.

    Mr Skye,if want to ask questions of management, please do,but give the opera a real review please and chase that OA management down with the hard questions.

    Here’s one to ask. Why are you charging the public international prices when your product is not quite international. Filling roles with so called up and coming talent that cant be heard over an orchestra? (as in the latest La Boheme,Magic Flute, Cosi Fan Tutte..) If you are going to bring on the reserves, charge half price.)

    I loved the Traviata,even the mics and orchestra being under the stage wasnt a deterrent for an amazing night out.

  9. Big Dog

    If you like bare, stark, all-white stages, you had The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte in the season just gone. It doesn’t hurt to do something a bit fun and lavish as well.

    So what if it’s junk food compared to filet mignon? Junk food is fun every now and then. Indoors, outdoors, stark, lavish. Whatever. Vive le difference.

    And complaining about $9 beers? Really? Have you bought a popcorn and a Coke at the movies lately?

  10. Salla

    I went on Tuesday and thought it was spectacular. The way you’re writing about this event makes it sound like you think this is what all operas are becoming, but this is just one event on the calendar and the rest of the seasons remain largely traditional. I don’t see anything wrong with presenting opera in a more accessible (if not as pure and perfect) way if it means more people listening to it and connecting with it. If they’re looking for a pretty snazzy night on the town then they won’t beat this, and nightclubs nowadays charge similar drink prices to this event – if you’re going for a big night out then I think you are willing to pay a bit extra, especially given the champagne there is actually very good.

    New audiences? I saw a lot of younger couples, more diverse ethnicities than usually seen in the Opera Theatre, and people whose accents betrayed that they were much more likely from Outer Western Sydney than from the Eastern Suburbs.

    The fact is that this will clearly not be everybody’s cup of tea, but what’s so wrong with other people preferring opera this way? Or they prefer opera on TV? Or they prefer opera on CD? Or they prefer opera on the big screen? And if they don’t like it, then the event will eventually fold and you’ll have nothing to worry about.. but it doesn’t seem like that’s the reaction most people are having to this event.

    My 2c.

  11. Bondles

    A couple of years ago I went to Oz Opera (Opera Australia’s touring arm)’s production of La Boheme at the Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. It was a case study in how to democratise opera. It was a free, BYO performance, with a brief explanation of what was to come at the beginning of each act and surtitles. In spite of that, there was nothing dumbed-down about the performance itself. Wonderful performances by the whole cast, but especially a brilliant Rodolfo, left not a dry eye in the house.

    It worked, too – that was my first opera experience, but it was so enjoyable that I’ve since been to a few more (including last year’s somewhat lacklustre production of La Traviata. Perhaps they’re just not very good at that one?). $100 tickets just aren’t the way to get new fans through the door.

  12. Jason Whittaker

    I think this is pretty tough, Brad. I think you’re right to question how it fits into the strategy; perhaps it doesn’t deliver the new audiences the company is chasing. Perhaps it is the same frocked-up northern beaches elites that go to the Opera House. There’s nothing very common or accessible in how it’s been set up, I agree, and given the opportunity of such a public performance perhaps that has been lost.

    But I think it has to be judged for what it is: a spectacular piece of entertainment. It is nothing but a gimmick, but what a gimmick it is.

    I actually thought the design balanced a grand ostentatiousness with quite a stark minimalism at times. The moments of intimacy actually worked on such an enormous stage in such an enormous forum. And while you will always compromise sound quality outside, I thought with very few exceptions on opening night it was mixed really well. I was constantly surprised at how good the sound was in such a difficult environment; even those opening pianissimo moments in the overture (and I thought having the narrative prelude was pretty nifty). That’s a world-class effort to produce in outdoor entertainment.

    It won’t be the best sounding opera, even the best looking opera, you’ll ever see. But you can’t beat it as a Sydney experience.

    And is that such a bad thing for Opera Australia to put on?

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