Northern Ireland Opera and Ulster Orchestra at Grand Opera House, Belfast, on 10 September 2022
Tonight, we find ourselves in Belfast, for Northern Ireland Opera’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata. The first production on the stage of the venerable Grand Opera House since both the pandemic and the theatre’s multi-million-pound restoration, it also marks the return of NI Opera to its home venue. It’s exciting, there’s a full house, and a lot of expectation. Always a fine theatre, the Grand Opera House is now looking stunning both in the auditorium and front-of-house, and presumably backstage as well. It is a wonderful asset to the city.
The Ulster Orchestra weaves a beguiling sound in the overture and maintains a superb sonic presence throughout the evening (complete with a fine clarinet solo in the second scene). The instrumental prelude ends with the rushing beat of a polka like a spinning top, full of the urban energy of 1840s Paris, and the curtain rises to reveal… an empty stage. The set is an impressive domestic interior, painted black with added giant abstract shapes high up on each side, like massive twists of solidified wax. Is this meant to symbolise the blackened walls of a torched Big House from the 1920s, with ghostly inhabitants? Without any clear reference, this seems unlikely. Maybe it is just a reference to a scorched, diseased society, or the central character’s psyche, but it remains an unchanging presence throughout. When chorus and cast do enter, several seconds later, the mixed style of dress resists any time period, with abstraction emphasised by the colour palette—a red ballgown for female lead Violetta (Siobhan Stagg), black for everyone else.
Counter to most approaches to this work in recent years, the theatrical style is surprisingly static, which at times lurches close to the ‘park and bark’ style of opera direction of years ago. Frustratingly, it misses the flow of a naturalistic production while not being disciplined enough for expressionist stylisation. The chorus moves (and sometimes poses) in formation, and momentary gaps pop into interactions, lending a distancing effect to this most direct of Verdi’s operas. We miss the sense of mischief and danger that this work, and these characters, can produce. It does mean that there are no distractions to the music, and here there is much to enjoy.
Stagg’s Violetta (her debut in this opera) is sweet, light, and beguiling, her flowing coloratura immaculate, with an inner toughness gently emerging in the final scene. It is a voice that seems to hark back to older interpretations of this role. Her toy-boy lover Alfredo, never a grateful figure, is performed with punchy enthusiasm by tenor Noah Stewart, though sadly let down at times with some wayward tuning. The quality voice of the night is surely that of baritone Yuriy Yurchuk,in the role of Alfredo’s problematic father Giorgio Germont. Smoothly charismatic, his presence certainly poses intriguing possibilities about this role. The other singing roles reflect the excellent emerging talent of new Irish singers, Ellen Mawhinney enjoyable as Annina, while chorus member Séamus Brady sings the Baron (covering tonight for a sadly indisposed Brendan Collins) in fine style. Margaret Bridge’s strong stage presence makes much of Flora’s limited role.
The most difficult element of the evening is the conducting of Rebecca Lang, as her insistent choice of speeds clearly causes problems for the principal singers at times, with inevitable effects on ensemble. Cameron Menzies’ production, for all its detachment, nevertheless serves as an effective frame for this well-worn tale and brings the audience to its feet at the end, applauding the return of music theatre to one of Ireland’s most beautiful venues.
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Sung in Italian (libretto by Francesco Maria Piave), with English surtitles and English spoken dialogue
Produced by Northern Ireland Opera
Director: Cameron Menzies; Set Designer: Niall McKeever; Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy; Choreographer: Isabel Baquero; Conductor: Rebecca Lang
Cast: Siobhan Stagg (Violetta), Noah Stewart (Alfredo), Yuriy Yurchuk (Giorgio Germont), Margaret Bridge (Flora Bervoix), Ellen Mawhinney (Annina), Owen Lucas (Gastone de Letorieres), Brendan Collins (Baron Douphol), Graeme Danby (Dottore Grenvil); NI Opera Chorus
Verdi’s La Traviata is in production at the Grand Opera House, Belfast to 17 September 2022. For more information see niopera.com
Images by Philip Magowan and Neil Harrison