Review: La Traviata on Sydney Harbour

3 out of 5 stars
Fireworks erupt over the spectacular La Traviata set for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
Photograph: Supplied/Hamilton Lund

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Opera Australia revives its big-ticket Harbour extravaganza

It will never not be awe-inspiring to sit in the audience at Mrs Maquaries Point with the spectacle of Sydney Harbour at night spread out before you. That glimmering backdrop, with the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge in perfect alignment, makes for a fabulous adornment to La Traviata.

One of the big guns in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s arsenal, the beloved Giuseppe Verdi masterpiece – adapted from the swooning Alexandre Dumas novel – returns to the water one year after it was unceremoniously bumped from its 2020 berth. It's centred on the secret heartache of party girl Violetta, as played with spectacular oomph by Australian-Mauritian soprano Stacey Alleaume. A magnificent performer able to dazzle from a distance with a heartfelt smile, her beaming glow seems to capture the neon trace of the Parisian skyline, as picked out in Brian Thomson’s set design and illuminated by John Rayment.

As the courtesan loved by everyone, she can't help but be the life of the party, even though she's concealing the terrible truth that she is secretly dying (because opera sure does love dead women). Living life to the full while she can, she's torn over whether it is worthwhile tying herself down to shy hunk Alfredo. The latter is played with dashing charisma by Kosovo-born tenor Rame Lahaj, who similarly radiates unbridled passion across the water.

The opening act is a Great Gatsby-style whirlwind, as they dance around one another tentatively, lost in the throng of many glamorous parties. That vibe is underlined dramatically by the now trademark eruption of New Years-like fireworks near the end of the opening stretch. This being the opera, their burgeoning love is soon to be cruelly dashed, in this instance by Alfredo's meddling father, played with a boo-worthy patrician's sneer by Michael Honeyman. He forces a crucial confrontation, and Violetta retreats to the hubbub of the social scene once more, following a short break in the countryside with Alfredo. When Alfredo pursues her back to Paris and denounces her at a party, Violetta's public shaming cuts deep. With the powerful conversation occurring right now about respect for women, this critical moment is an even more uncomfortable watch.

Playing out on a vast stage overhung by a showstopping Swarovski crystal chandelier that Alleaume swings on at one point, the arena is best-suited to these larger-than-life moments as the plot swings from party to party. Director Constantine Costi has great fun with the grand hurrah of drinking song 'Brindisi', which is positively effervescent. And the emotional heft of aria 'Sempre Libera' soars into the star-spun night sky, expertly corralled by conductor Brian Castles-Onion. It’s very easy to be swept up in the moment when La Traviata goes large. 

But the sheer scale of the floating platform, and its distance from even the front row, is less well suited to the much-loved opera’s more intimate, heart-filled moments and tragic cries. Violetta’s confinement to bed and desperate hope for Alfredo’s return to her side is particularly dwarfed, with a make-do bed a little lost in one corner. Rather than spotlighting the drama, the blank space surrounding them dulls the moment somewhat. Still, Alleaume and Lahaj are a magnetic enough pairing that they can hold our collective breath even when the scale works against them. And the harbour's gleaming lights and passing boats are all part of the opera's razzle-dazzle. It's an evening to remember.

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