For all its glittering depiction of the demi-monde of 19th-century Paris, tragedy is at the heart of La traviata, something that is elicited wonderfully in this production by Northern Ireland Opera. There was a felicitous marriage of excellent singing from the principals and chorus alike, passionate orchestral playing and a compelling vision for the opera from its artistic director, Cameron Menzies.

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Noah Stewart (Alfredo) and ensemble
© Neil Harrison

Menzies decides to set this opera in a timeless world; it could be contemporary (though without technology) and there are very few clues as to guide us. In a way, this never becomes a distracting or confusing element. Rather we are focused on the psychological action of the opera, how it unfolds; how the raw sentiments touch us and how the principals' vulnerability and humanity are echoed and shaped throughout.

To this end the set designs of Niall McKeever are simple but effective, easily adapted to many different scenes. Dark wooden panelling and frosted windows create the style of a ballroom in 19th-century Paris while the futuristic rococo-style wall decorations done in aluminium with some upturned chairs add a sense of foreboding and that all is not as it seems. The costumes are straightforward for the most part: black tie for the men (though by Act 2 they were wearing black shirts with their tuxedos) and evening dresses for the women. Linda Britten’s couture gown for Violetta is alluringly red.

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Siobhan Stagg (Violetta)
© Philip Magowan

Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg was an outstanding Violetta, intoxicating us with the pearly beauty of her voice and convincing us with her excellent acting as seductive courtesan, rejected lover and consumptive tragic heroine. There are very few moments when Violetta is not on stage, and so Stagg captured our attention and devotion right from the get go and held it to the very end. At times coquettish, at other times exquisitely intimate, Stagg spun the gossamer thread of her melody effortlessly throughout. She dispatched the virtuosic melisma passages in “Sempre libera”, her final aria of Act 1, with ease while her impassioned reconciliation with Alfredo at the end of Act 3 was heart-rending.

The chemistry was electric between Stagg and her lover, Alfredo, sung by American tenor Noah Stewart. From the time Alfredo espies Violetta in the opening scene, we understand this undying passion. Stewart impressed from the start, his voice rich and warm and well-modulated as he proposed a toast (the famous brindisi, “Libiamo ne' lieti calici”). While possessing a strong voice, he was careful not to overpower Stagg, something that was evidenced in the duet “Un di felice”. His accusations in Act 2 were terrific, illustrating his fine acting ability.

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Yuriy Yurchuk (Germont) and Siobhan Stagg (Violetta)
© Philip Magowan

Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, made up the trio of principal singers. His is the unenviable role of separating the lovers on a pretty flimsy pretext and then being rather sorry for it all at the end just as Violetta dies. His acting was a little stilted; he seemed more supercilious than emotional, as the father begging his son’s lover to depart so that his daughter can marry. Vocally he projected effortlessly, though when singing with Stagg he tended to dominate too much.

Ellen Mawhinney as Annina, Violetta’s maid, impressed with her sweet singing, but Seamus Brady as Baron Douphol lacked the necessary menace and predatory instinct needed for his role. The chorus of NIO were most impressive singing with great gusto while the dancers in Act 2, under the choreography of Isabel Baquero, gave a fine rendition of some Spanish dances. Conductor Rebecca Lang elicited a passionate performance from the Ulster Orchestra; from the opening shimmering in Act 1 prelude to dramatic final chords of the opera, Lang had us fully engaged.

Northern Ireland Opera partially funded Andrew Larkin's trip to Belfast.