Review: La traviata (Opera Holland Park)

The sad tale of Violetta makes a happy start to the new Opera Holland Park season

Lauren Fagan as Violetta and Matteo Desole as Alfredo in La traviata (OHP)
Lauren Fagan as Violetta and Matteo Desole as Alfredo in La traviata (OHP)
© Robert Workman

Viva Verdi! Opera Holland Park has cracked open a promising 2018 season with the composer's most popular opera, and it's vintage champagne. The year's quartet of offerings have been excitingly cast and creative teams shrewdly selected; indeed, the only imponderable for this o'er-canopied company is the wilful Kensington weather. Happily, after a day of deluge the heavens held fire while La traviata hit the stage.

Cards on Flora Bervoix' table, this is the most distinguished new Traviata to reach London in years. Not only is it radiantly sung and splendidly played by the City of London Sinfonia under Matthew Kofi Waldren, but director Rodula Gaitanou's (mostly) good ideas are rendered with a light touch. It's the antithesis of Daniel Kramer's recent Coliseum fiasco; if I ran ENO I'd be buying it in.

Mind you, it would need work. Cordelia Chisholm's ravishing Second Empire setting is an object lesson in spinning a small budget into gold, but her layout doesn't always help the performances. Imagine a giant Yale key with a glazed gallery as its shank and a raised disc as its handle, then set that along the full breadth of the wide OHP stage. What's left has minimal depth but maximum lateral access, so Gaitanou ends up staging the opera in two dimensions. This mitigates against normal patterns of behaviour, especially in the first two scenes. Relationships are over-blocked to ensure maximum spatial coverage and so movement rarely smacks of a natural impulse. It meant I believed in neither the lovers' romance nor the tragic intervention of Alfredo's father.

After the interval, a combination of the opera's momentum and happier stagecraft carried the day. Flora's party was a riot of colour and discreet decadence, while Lauren Fagan as Violetta delivered a harrowingly noble death scene in a final act that contained one ingenious directorial idea: Verdi's offstage street revellers are subsumed into Violetta's delirium and appear as a horde of grim reaper ghouls. Hats off to Gaitanou for that; hats squarely back on for her amplified heavy breathing before each of the outer acts. Implying that the entire opera is being remembered by Violetta in a death-rattle flashback? Perhaps so; but huh and meh.

No qualms about the singing. It is ravishing throughout, with Fagan a scintillating discovery as Violetta. The Australian soprano and former ROH Jette Parker Young Artist comes of operatic age with a performance that demands to be seen. In a spellbinding act one duet she was partnered by Matteo Desole as Alfredo, his warm, ringing tenor wholly authentic in its Italian sound and astoundingly well controlled across the entire range with no trace of any passaggio gear-change. It was a masterly interpretation by a singer still in his 20s.

Stephen Gadd was a convincing Germont, ramrod-stiff as the direction required and with little room for manoeuvre but properly complex and authoritatively sung. Ellie Edmonds, a mezzo who invariably impresses, made a plausibly youthful Annina, and baritone Nicholas Garrett captured the essence of Barone Douphol, proudly perched atop his status-conscious dignity. As for this year's Opera Holland Park Chorus, prepared by Richard Harker, it's a vintage selection that overflows with choral sparkle and full-bodied luxury. Pour a glass and savour.