Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre *****
Verdi made one of the biggest miscalculations in operatic history when composing the Prelude to La Traviata (Wagner did the same with Lohengrin), the strings of the orchestra creeping in with hushed tones while the audience was still noisily settling. Audiences are notoriously restless when there is nothing to see onstage.
David McVicar, his original direction of 2009 revived by Sarah Crisp, solves the problem brilliantly, raising the curtain to reveal, through gauze, empty pre-party tables, and in front of the main performing dais, a disconsolate Alfredo wandering abjectedly through his memories.
The remarkable WNO Orchestra under Alexander Joel helps, lustrous cellos, giving way to high spirits as Violetta’s party gets underway. But this is no mere spectacle here. Instead, the context is set, with the courtesan’s long-time protector, Baron Douphol, made much more of a presence than he usually appears, James Cleverton tall and imposing, and stepping off the main dais to sulk when the ardent young Alfredo is introduced, declaring his undying devotion to Violetta.
Stacey Alleaume is the Violetta of dreams. She has the canonical three voices, bright and brittle in the vapid party act, warm and natural in Act II’s attempt at domesticity with Alfredo, despairing at her dilemma as she feigns to jilt him for Douphol at the behest of Alfredo’s father (the WNO Chorus at its sonorous and proactive best in this second party scene), and weak yet clearly projecting whilst she never leaves her Act III deathbed. She also looks the part, initially glamorous, slight and vulnerable, and eventually cadaverous.
David Junghoon Kim is another example of the fine Korean tenors gracing our stages. His Alfredo is convincing and well-drawn (his drunken behaviour as he tracks down Violetta is so credible), and his vocal lines are well-shaped, ardent and arresting. As his father, Germont, Mark S Doss brings dignity and eventual compassion to this difficult role, virtually ordering Violetta to save Alfredo’s reputation by renouncing him, but finally remorseful at the sacrifice this dying woman has made.
Germont has always been cast as the villain of the piece, possessively trying to reclaim his son from the clutches of this fallen woman. Latterly I have come to see through this: he is only, admittedly clumsily, trying to do the best for both his children, Alfredo and his sister, whose suitor is about to reject her because she is tainted by the reputation of her brother’s partner. That unseen young stuffed-shirt is the real villain of the piece.
*Birmingham Hippodrome November 9 and 11 (7.30pm).