OperaUpClose celebrates its fourth anniversary with a production of Verdi's 'La traviata', the latest operatic masterpiece to get the company's lively, stripped-down, trademark treatment at its residency at the King's Head Theatre in Islington.
Working from her own English-language adaptation of the libretto, OperaUpClose artistic director Robin Norton-Hale has plucked Verdi's tragic romance from its original mid-nineteenth-century Paris setting and relocated it to 1920s New York, turning Verdi's doomed courtesan heroine Violetta from a French demimondaine into an American flapper out of 'The Great Gatsby'.
For the most part, it's an inspired updating - and one that is much more successful than the company's recent 'Tosca', which bizarrely relocated action from Napoleonic Rome to a light-bulb factory in communist East Berlin. The era perfectly evokes the mood of reckless hedonism and heedless frivolity with which the opera opens, and the period suits Prudence Sanders' chic Violetta, too - providing the perfect playground for a character who, initially, lives only for pleasure and allowing Sanders to pull off a series of very fetching '20s costumes. (Sanders is sharing the role during the run with Elinor Jane Moran and Louisa Tee, and the other parts are similarly divided.)
Norton-Hale's trimming of the opera's cast is also mostly successful. Flora McIntosh is a warm, sympathetic presence as Violetta's friend Flora, who here gets to take on some of the attributes and activities of Violetta's loyal servant Annina. Yet some of the plot gets blurred by casting David Durham's Germont, the stern father of Violetta's young lover Alfredo (Lawrence Olsworth-Peter), as a hypocritical vote-seeking politician and making him one of the revellers at Violetta's opening party rather than a disapproving outsider to her world.
Fortunately, despite the inevitable compromises occasioned by turning grand opera into a chamber piece, the story's emotional essence remains intact. The essence of Verdi's music is also preserved by orchestrator Harry Blake's nimble arrangement for piano, clarinet and cello. Indeed, the staging and the scoring both remind us that 'La traviata' is fundamentally a very intimate work that doesn't need a chorus of dozens to make its impact. The King's Head is, however, probably too intimate a space for Norton-Hale's production to be entirely successful. Sanders is a fine young singer but her clear penetrating soprano could rattle the glasses in the adjoining pub and is, at times, too overwhelming for the theatre's confined space. Her volume control does improve, though, in the second half and the pianissimo of her death-bed aria is quietly affecting. Jason Best