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The Show Must Go On - ‘La Traviata’ Opening Night Wobbles

Casting problems have beset ‘La Traviata’ since its first performance in March 1853 at Venice’s La Fenice opera house. Sadly, Saturday night’s premiere at Wellington’s newly-restored St James Theatre proved no different.

Photo credit STEPHEN A'COURT

NZ Opera’s new production was disrupted when lead tenor Oliver Sewell (billed to play Alfredo) became a close Covid contact. His part was performed on stage by masked-up assistant director Nino Raphael, but sung by young tenor Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono, who stepped up and performed the role from one of the lower boxes at very short notice. Similarly, the role of Gastone vacated by Fonoti-Fuimaono was acted by director Sara Brodie and sung by Xavier Krause.

The company’s cover arrangements allowed them to prepare the cover roles vocally, but as they were otherwise rehearsing in their substantive roles of Gastone and Giuseppe respectively, they were not contracted to prepare the staging for their cover roles. Fonoti-Fuimaono and Krause were literally called up on the day, while Hannah Ashford-Beck had more notice since Hannah Catrin Jones had been sick with Covid for ten days.

Similar problems surrounded the opera’ first production. In February 1852, Verdi attended a performance of Alexander Dumas fils' play ‘The Lady of the Camellias.’ His biographer Mary Jane Phillips-Matz reports he immediately began to compose music for what would later become ‘La Traviata.’ Verdi expressed concern about censorship in Venice, after his encounter with the censors concerning ‘Rigoletto.’ A synopsis was finally sent to Venice under the title ‘Amore e morte’ (Love and Death), with Verdi writing to his friend De Sanctis that "for Venice I'm doing La Dame aux camélias which will probably be called La traviata. A subject for our own age."

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Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave wanted to follow Dumas in giving the opera a contemporary setting, but the authorities at La Fenice insisted that it be set in the past (“c. 1700” - it was not until the 1880s that ‘realistic’ contemporary productions were staged). Reports from rehearsals confirmed the limitations of the chosen soprano, Fanny Salvini-Donatelli. Verdi was distraught, holding on to the notion that the opera could be staged in modern dress and insisting that another soprano be secured, even after the deadline for securing one had passed. Arriving for rehearsals in Venice at the end of February, Verdi was filled with apprehension and made his unhappiness clear to the singers.

On opening night, the audience jeered, directing most of their scorn at the casting of Salvini-Donatelli. Though she was an acclaimed singer, they considered her to be too old (at thirty-eight) and overweight to play a young woman dying of consumption. Verdi had previously attempted to persuade the manager of La Fenice to re-cast the role with a younger woman, but without success. The next day, Verdi wrote his his most famous letter - "La traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell."

While there were demands for productions from impresarios in various Italian cities, Verdi refused to allow them unless he could be sure of the strength of the singers. As Julian Budden notes, it came to be Venice "that made an honest woman of Violetta" when Verdi allowed a performance at the Teatro San Benedetto. Some revisions to the second and third Acts took place between 1853 and May 1854, when the opera was performed again. This time it was a great success, largely due to Maria Spezia-Aldigheri’s portrayal of Violetta. "Then [referring to the La Fenice performances] it was a fiasco; now it has created a furore. Draw your own conclusions!" reported Piave, who had overseen the production in Verdi's absence.

A revised version of the opera was staged in England in May 1856 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where it was considered morally questionable and "the heads of the Church did their best to put an injunction upon performance; the Queen refrained from visiting the theatre during the performances, though the music, words and all, were not unheard at the palace.” When it was first performed at New York’s Academy of Music later that year, George Temepleton Strong noted in his diary, “People say the plot's immoral, but I don't see that it's so much worse than many others, not to speak of Don Giovanni, which as put on the stage is little but rampant lechery”, while the Evening Post critic wrote, "Those who have quietly sat through the glaring improprieties of Don Giovanni will hardly blush or frown at anything in La traviata."

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a few first-night nerves were evident in Wellington. As Max Rashbrooke noted, the matadors occasionally sounded under-strength and various chorus movements were slightly ragged, while conductor Hamish McKeich ratcheted up the tempo, with some arias like ‘De Miei Bollenti Spiriti’ slightly rushed, and the staccato brass threatening at times to overwhelm Violetta’s struggle.

The action was staged against a backdrop dominated by three large blocks covered in period wallpaper, one of which features an enormous mirror-glass window. Mark McEntyre’s simple set design was highlighted by Paul O’Brien’s effective lighting, especially the bleakly chilly dawn that broke at the start of Act III. Brodie introduced some subtle bits of stage business, such as the wordless opening scene in which Violetta shows a bit of thigh to get a shot from her doctor and when her crumpled bedsheets suggest the train of a never-worn wedding dress. Such inventive details demonstrate her always ingenious and carefully designed direction.

Emma Pearson’s diminutive Violetta was smart and animated. As former principal artist at the Hessisches Staatstheater, Wiesbaden, she performed over thirty roles for the company, including the title roles in Donizetti’s’ Lucia di Lammermoor,’ Berg’s’ Lulu,’ Shchedrin’s ‘Lolita,’ and Cavalli’s ‘La Calisto.’ She has performed Semele, Contessa Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), and Gilda for New Zealand Opera, Violetta Valéry in La traviata and a Google app of The Magic Flute in augmented reality for Opera Queensland, as well as many other leading roles for Opera Australia, Pinchgut Opera, West Australian Opera, and State Opera South Australia.

Fonoti-Fuimaono is a NZOS alumni, who was recognized as a Dame Malvina Major Foundation Studio Artist with New Zealand Opera in 2022, awarded the Susie and Guy Haddleton Emerging Artist Award, and remains an active member of Hawke’s Bay Youth Initiative Project Prima Volta.

Rashbrooke summed up their respective performances perfectly - “Although Fonoti-Fuimaono has a fine, clear and charming voice, the on-stage magnetism between the leads is inevitably drained when one of them is miming the part, and even his facial expressions are invisible … fortunately Emma Pearson was superb as Violetta. If her presence was a touch too formal, more society hostess than demimondaine, this was a minor blemish in a performance in which a powerful but supple voice was matched with a wide dramatic range.”

“In the moments where she contemplated Alfredo’s love, and later rejected it, her quiet solos - technically among the most demanding in any given performance - were especially sweet. Better still were her scenes with the fantastic Philip Rhodes, playing Alfredo’s father, Giorgio. The latter - his physical presence coolly imposing and his voice stentorian - perfectly caught the forceful complacency of a bourgeois male whose heart is nonetheless softened by Violetta’s plight.”

La Traviata by Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Wellington Opera, Orchestra Wellington. Director Sara Brodie, conductor Hamish McKeich. St James Theatre, Wellington, until July 16. Hannah Catrin Jones will return for Tuesday’s performance and Oliver Sewell is expected to be back for Thursday’s.


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