“I had to bring my big handbag, so I could fit my binoculars in it,” says the woman next to me as we take our seats at the Soho theatre for Verdi’s La Traviata. Has she never been to an OperaUpClose production before? It must come as a great surprise when, five minutes into the opening party scene, a drop of champagne from Alfredo’s glass splashes onto her knees.
One thing is guaranteed with this reputable fringe opera company: wherever you are sitting, you will be in such close proximity to the singers that you will see every twitch of their bodies, the vibrato tremor of their tongues, the beads of sweat on their brows. At one point, the lead tenor appears by my side, serenading Violetta who looks up from the stage. I feel so wrapped up in the scene that I’m a little jealous she’s the object of his affections.
OperaUpClose, known for scaling down typically-enormous operas and squeezing them into tiny theatres, is usually housed at the King’s Head pub in Islington. This adaptation of Verdi’s adored work opened there in November, and has transferred to the Soho Theatre for a six-week summer run. Thankfully, none of its arresting tenderness has been lost in the move.
Director Robin Norton-Hale sets the opera in 1920s America, an era when boozy parties felt all the more hedonistic because of their illegality. She’s whittled the cast down to five, adorned in sequined flapper dresses and fur lined overcoats, and Katie Bellman’s set has nostalgic touches, with an ancient gramophone, chaise longue and Art Deco brandy glasses.
Violetta, a party girl with a hidden past as a courtesan, is blissfully devoted to Alfredo, but his father (authoritative baritone Andrew Mayor) insists she ends the relationship to save his political reputation. Violetta agrees to sacrifice her perfect life for the happiness of her lover’s family, and her suffering gradually becomes too much for her to bear.
Verdi said of Violetta that he would rather a singing actress played the heroine than a top soprano. The angelic Elinor Jane Moran has all bases covered. She astutely juggles the two conflicting sides of opera’s arguably most multi-dimensional female role, her outer party spirit harbouring a deep emotional insecurity. While the young soprano’s sound may not yet fill a space much bigger than the Soho theatre, her elegant voice drifts with ease to the high registers.
Robin Bailey as Alfredo is the quintessential tenor – smooth, sensitive, with a voice which reminds me why I love Verdi, while Rosie Middleton, a Royal Northern College of Music graduate and rising star on the fringe, gives a stalwart performance as Violetta’s right-hand girl Flora.
A clarinet, cello and piano ensemble accompanies from the back of the stage, playing an arrangement by Harry Blake that exploits the cello for its raw passion (played with empathy by Jay Jenkinson), and the clarinet for its haunting tone. Although not always in time with the singers, the players create an atmosphere despite their limited musical forces.
It isn’t until after the interval that the drama becomes palpable. This is often the case with La Traviata, perhaps because of the premature enthusiasm of the opening party, and the improbable speed with which Violetta and Alfredo’s relationship progresses. But the cast appear to struggle with this too, and take some time to muster the energy the opera demands.
The scale of Verdi’s compositions was gargantuan. Rather than attempt to emulate this, Norton-Hale does without the melodrama and takes a human approach, allowing the subtler emotions of the opera to surface. As such, it is easier to relate to Violetta’s difficulty in believing Alfredo’s initial advances when he doesn’t really know her, or the way her lover’s pride prevents him from being honest to himself about the way he feels until it is too late. The ability to get under opera’s skin is fast becoming a notable trait of this ambitious director, and leaves the audience as emotionally shaken as would the grandest of spectacles. And you can leave your binoculars at home.
La Traviata continues at the Soho Theatre until 14 September. For more info and to book tickets, click here.
Photos © Christopher Tribble