Can there be a lovelier setting for opera than the gardens of Nevill Holt on a balmy summer afternoon? With classic English stately home gardening, a view overlooking uncountable miles of patchwork fields of Leicestershire countryside, a golden sunset with swallows circling overhead to remind one, in a rather Japanese way, of the transience of summer and life?

The Brindisi: Susana Gaspar (Violetta), Luis Gomes (Alfredo)
© Lloyd Winters | Nevill Holt Opera

We were here to see La traviata, performed by a young cast. With Nevill Holt’s much-lauded indoor theatre being closed due to Covid, the cast were singing in the open air with a medium-sized orchestra behind them in a metal-framed tent. The twin challenges were to bring something new to that most familiar of works and to deal with the technical difficulties of producing open air opera, with the impossibility of using unamplified voices. Both challenges were met with panache.

La traviata is a great story as long as the singers are able to make you believe in their characters. Here, under the command of director Jamie Manton, the whole cast made us both believe in them completely and also feel the timelessness of the story. Susana Gaspar’s Violetta was proud, vivacious and commanding, alternating with extreme vulnerability. Far from the stereotypical tenor Latin lover, Luis Gomes’ Alfredo was a callow youth utterly out of his depth emotionally, remaining so throughout the piece: at the end of the opera when they sing the duet “Parigi, o cara noi lasceremo”, he can’t even bear to look at Violetta because he knows that she isn’t going to be able to leave her room, let alone Paris. Directors often let the two party scenes degenerate into mannered costume drama or create some kind of conceptual meta-party: here, they just looked like great parties with young people in somewhat erratic fancy dress behaving wildly and having way too much fun. The card game scene, with Alfredo’s petulance and the guests’ reaction when his behaviour crosses the line of what they deem acceptable, made as powerful an impact as in any production I’ve seen.

Michel de Souza (Giorgio), Susana Gaspar (Violetta)
© Lloyd Winters | Nevill Holt Opera

The general setting – a large tiled structure which served as bar, fountain or pedestal, with much of the chorus action happening on the grass in front – worked well, and I’ll accept the odd directorial misfire (the idea didn’t quite come off of a child actor portraying, amongst other things, the innocence of Alfredo’s young sister), given the careful attention to detail of movement and body language that Manton displayed.

The other massive plaudit goes to sound designer Mark Rogers for the way in which the sound reached our ears such that it always appeared to come from whoever was singing, regardless of where they were (in reality, the sound was coming from the dozens of loudspeakers deployed in front of three separate lots of grandstand seating). It’s virtually impossible to amplify bel canto perfectly – the dynamic range between a pianissimo whisper and a soprano hitting a high note at full throttle is just too great – but the overall sound quality here was about as good as it gets.

Annabel Kennedy (Flora) and party guests
© Lloyd Winters | Nevill Holt Opera

Gaspar is an alumnus of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker programme who is currently singing small roles with big opera companies and big roles with small ones. On the evidence of this performance, with a possible caveat that we weren’t hearing raw unamplified power, she is ready to make that next leap: this was a highly persuasive Violetta, with nuance, particularly lovely timbre in the pianissimi ("Addio del passato" was especially notable), confident coloratura and plenty of energy in the happier or more dramatic moments. Gomes wasn’t quite at her level in pure quality of timbre – we could do with a bit more richness and depth – but his phrasing was good and his characterisation nothing short of superb. Michel de Souza was a powerful Germont, with plenty of depth to his voice: look out for him in roles closer to the bass-baritone range. With some of the responsibility for instrumental balance devolved to the sound engineers, Nicholas Chalmers and the Manchester Camerata gave an excellent account of the score, romantic without being overdone, well accented and energetic without dissolving into caricature.

Susana Gaspar (Violetta)
© Lloyd Winters | Nevill Holt Opera

La traviata is both the archetypal bel canto opera, with all those fabulous tunes and opportunity for star singers to shine, and a human tragedy filled with hard-hitting social critique. You’ll hear more accomplished bel canto indoors in a major opera house, but you’ll be hard put to find a Traviata where the singers are more committed to the text, or one that better puts across the characters and the tragedy.

[Update 2021-08-07: Opera Nevill Holt have asked me to mention the system that allows the sound to appear to follow the singers around, and I think it was good enough to deserve a name-check. It's called Soundscape by d&b audiotechnik and was provided by Southby Productions]