A Traviata aching with emotion

La Traviata

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

VERDI'S tragic tale of La Traviata, the fallen woman, is about more than just love, it is about passion and raw emotion. You have to feel the hurt of Alfredo and Violetta not just hear it.

That was the element that seemed to be missing the last time this otherwise excellent WNO production was staged at the Hippodrome in 2009 but last night it was there in spades. This was a Traviata aching with emotion.

Carlos Osuna had had to return to Mexico because of family commitments which meant his place as our tragic hero Alfredo was taken by Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo. No disrespect to old Carlos and we wish him well but by halfway through Act One no one cared.

New Jersey born Capalbo is all you could want in a dashing romantic lead – young, 34, handsome, slim, looks good with his shirt off and a fine voice to boot – the sort of bloke other blokes secretly hate.

But on top of a wonderful voice the lad can act which can be a failing in opera where it is all to easy to let the arias carry the emotions along.

The story is simple. Alfredo falls in love with Violetta, (Joyce  El-Khoury) a courtsesan, who gives up her less than respectable life to be with him. The boy's father persuades her to end the relationship for the good of the family name which she reluctantly does on condition Alfredo is told what she has done when she dies from the TB which is slowly killing her.

Leonardo Capalbo as he appeared as another tragic character, Romeo

When Alfredo suspects that his father Georgio (Jason Howard) has interfered and engineered the break up of his relationship with the Violetta  he shows genuine fury and you can feel his sense of betrayal when he arrives uninvited and drunk at a party given by Flora, (Amanda Baldwin), his pain and contempt as he pays her for her services while he was her lover and his contempt and hatred for the lover she has returned to, Baron Douphal. (Eddie Wade).

He is matched superbly by the young Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta who is both attractive and has a voice which is rich and clear in both tone and control and, like her lover, she can really act. The result is a magical chemistry between our ill fated lovers as they become the tale they are singing.

She is the sort of woman a young man could easily fall for which is not always the case in opera where a fine voice can leave imagination having to work overtime for romantic leads who are, should we say, rather more mature and perhaps too well upholstered for the parts they play.

It is not a new phenomenon. When La Traviata premiered in Venice in 1853 it took some stick from the audience for the casting of acclaimed Italian soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli as Violetta.

Fanny was 38, and looked it, and was somewhat rotund so caused great amusement playing a young, frail, stunning beauty dying of consumption in the final scene.

No danger of that with Miss El-Khoury though who looked the part of a successful courtesan and you felt her anguish as she agrees to give up her Alfredo, her despair as she is humiliated by him at the party and finally her grief on her deathbed.

Her Ah, fors'è lui and Sempre libera set the tone and by the time we reach Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti, Farewell, lovely, happy dreams of the past, we really feel for the woman not just through the music. She is Violetta not just someone singing the words.

Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta has a beautiful voice and the looks to charm any young Alfredo and even his respectable father Georgio (Jason Howard)

Her duets with both the rich baritone of Jason Howard and the excellent Capalbo are highlights along with the bitterness of Alfredo as he asks Questa donna conoscete? – "You know this woman?" as he throws his winnings at her to pay for her services as a courtesan.

This was the original Pretty Woman, the courtesan with a heart and noble sprit, based on The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, the illegitimate son of his more famous father.

The tragedy is embedded in Verdi's sumptuous music but with this cast you not only hear it unfold but watch the characters come to life so that by the end you really do care about the people they have become.

The sets by Tanya McCallin are magnificent. Huge and elegant in predominantly funereal black and white while Marie Lambart, the revival director for David McVicar's original direction keeps the action moving along at a good pace and still manages the difficult feat of making large crowd scenes at the parties appear as a Victorian tableaux rather than a mob of people in fancy dress cluttering up the back of the stage – a lot more difficult than it seems as anyone who has directed any crowd scene will tell you.

Costumes are rich and elegant as you would expect from 1880s Paris and the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, under Julia Jones were quite magnificent.

This is a Traviata which tugs at the emotions and seems to end all too soon. It is on again on 09-03-12.

Roger Clarke 

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