“Oh joy I never knew of, to be in love and be loved!” As a genre, opera has suggested time and again that the beginnings of love are unconvincing, and often unpromising. Violetta, the démi-monde courtesan of Verdi’s La traviata, believes herself incapable of falling in love. Why then should she be so moved to discover in Act 1 that for a year she has been the distant love-object of Alfredo, a shy and presumably inexperienced young man? And what are Alfredo’s unconscious motivations for the cruelty with which he humiliates and repudiates Violetta in Act 2? There are no answers, nor indeed many probing questions, in this Scottish Opera revival of Sir David McVicar’s 2008 production, revived here by Marie Lambert, but it is a sumptuous and enjoyable opening for the 2017/18 Season nonetheless.

Scottish Opera Chorus © Jane Hobson
Scottish Opera Chorus
© Jane Hobson

La traviata is the tragedy of Violetta, but the focus in this production is on Alfredo, portrayed with fine nuance by tenor Peter Gijsbertsen. His Alfredo is forever on the cusp between awkward boyhood and the false self-assurance of early manhood, with a voice that is elegant and pining with ardour. Just as La Dame aux camélias, the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils on which Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave based their opera, is an account of Dumas’ short romance with Marie Duplessis, this version of La traviata opens with Alfredo walking across the stage absorbed in his memories. The dramatic core of the opera is Act 2, when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, interferes in his son’s scandalous love affair, and it shifts Traviata into being a story about a boy’s maturation and his confused integration into a conservative patriarchy. It transpires that Alfredo’s naïve belief in his own capacity to love is not as assured as it seemed before his passion for Violetta was requited, and it is only thereafter that the severe demands of his father take their toll and reveal the young man’s capacity for hate.

If Act 2 depicts Alfredo’s neurotic jealousy with harsh honesty, it also paints a sympathetic and complex picture of Violetta. She has fallen in love for the first – and final – time in her life (having been diagnosed with tuberculosis), and her mortality looms darkly ahead. Violetta proves herself to be a caring, principled and strikingly resilient woman, especially in her confrontation with Germont, who accuses her of profligacy and demands that she leave Alfredo so as not to lower his family’s reputation. When she returns to the life of a courtesan later in Act 2 and provokes Alfredo’s ire, we fully experience the sadness and impossibility of her situation.

<i>La traviata</i> © Jane Hobson
La traviata
© Jane Hobson

Soprano Gulnara Shafigullina was perhaps not at her best in the coloratura of Act 1 but sang with beautiful clarity in the lower passages of Act 2. While some vocal fatigue was evident again in Act 3, when Violetta is confined to her deathbed, Shafigullina managed to bring the opera to a stunningly claustrophobic and deeply moving climax.

Despite the vocal abilities of the cast, the energy and chemistry on stage in this production was not always convincing or engaging, causing the intensity of the drama to lag from time to time. The orchestra, conducted by David Parry, was crisp and precise and often brilliant in the fuller textures, only a couple of times overpowering Stephen Gadd’s authoritarian Germont. The costume and set design are simultaneously luxuriant and intimate, modelled with exquisite attention to period detail on the fin de siècle Paris as captured in the canvases of Manet, Gonzalès, Degas and Fourain, which are happily reproduced in the programme book. Scottish Opera has given us a production to enjoy, but not to be especially challenged by. It would be fascinating to witness the company take more risks. 

****1