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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