Only in Holland Park could you hear in one moment the amplified sound of laboured breathing and in the next the hoarse cry of the peacock. Pavonine contributions were energetic in the final act of Opera Holland Park’s La traviata, fighting earnestly to draw attention away from the mournful end of Violetta to their own more cheerful evening conversations. It in no way detracted from a highly successful and engrossing production by Rodula Gaitanou, a real ensemble effort that combined sensitivity of direction with strong singing on stage and spirited playing from the pit.
Cordelia Chisholm’s period set is elegantly assembled, with clear sightlines and uncluttered central spaces that allow for a large chorus to mingle without looking crammed. It adapts easily from salon to country home with a natty circular room on the right that switches from a classic conservatory to Violetta’s deathbed. Gaitanou avoids overt attempts to rewrite the opera, but there are plenty of good ideas, notably the aforementioned laboured breathing, deployed before the start of the prelude and at the start of Act 3. There’s a strong sense of direction throughout the production; choral choreography is strong and obvious care has been taken to ensure that none of the cast are at an awkward loose end. Party antics are glamorous without being distractingly ostentatious; the gypsy and the matador choruses are sleek and nimble, entertaining without being farcial.
Lauren Fagan was sensational as Violetta, offering an assumption of the role that one often craves but rarely gets. Vocally she was on splendid form; Fagan has a rich, full voice that was generously deployed. Projection was excellent and diction was largely clear. Vocal registers were well integrated and she soared into the coloratura of “Sempre libera”. More than just technical precision though, Fagan’s performance embodied Violetta’s tragedy and nobility, phrases soaked with emotion which matched the quality of her acting. Fagan alone makes this production worth seeing.
Her Alfredo, sung by Matteo Desole, was a curious one. Desole’s voice seemed cool at first; technically strong, but lacking a certain warmth and ardour in the first act that you would expect from a man so much in love. It was interesting to see the rather unsexual cuddle he gave Violetta on his return to the salon in Act 1, not so much a seductive embrace as the desperate hug of a young boy. What Desole seemed to emphasise was Alfredo’s immaturity – inexperience, petulance, lack of self control – which was suddenly dispersed when he is forced into adulthood by the tragedy of the final act. A little more vocal colour would have been welcome, but Desole’s tenor was bright and forcefully used.
Stephen Gadd Stephen Gadd has sung Giorgio Germont many times before and his experience in the role was clear. He came across as menacingly business-like in Act 2, unemotional, controlled and cynical, pacing round Violetta in a way reminiscent of Trump to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential debates. The sudden emotional clutch at Alfredo in “Di Provenza il mar” was effectively surprising, breaking away from the cold pater familias, and he conveyed the character’s remorseful thawing in the final act well. Vocally, he was a touch thin at times, but the lower register still has weight and his articulation was strong.
Among the minor roles, Nicholas Garrett gave us a primped, bullying Barone Douphol, immediately dislikeable, and Ellie Edmonds’ Annina flickered nervously around the deathbed, a sympathetic presence. The Opera Holland Park Chorus gave a lively performance and conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren drew a sensitive and balanced performance from the City of London Sinfonia.