As the prelude begins, Violetta, at the rear of the stage, is posed with her back to us. She is gazing up into a large, circular screen, an action she will repeat towards the end of the final act. She is watching a journey through human lungs, presumably her own: as the descending chords of the divisi violins tell us that she is in serious decline, a surgical camera probe goes down through a maze of tubes. The images, by video designer Gemma Burditt, reinforce the melancholy reminders of an ever-present reality, so that when we are plunged suddenly into the party of rich, boozy hedonists and “Libiamo ne' lieti calici” the effect is enormous.

ji-Min Park and Hye-Youn Lee in <i>La Traviata</i> © Richard H Smith
ji-Min Park and Hye-Youn Lee in La Traviata
© Richard H Smith
It was a delight to see such a young and fresh amorous couple, both with Korean origins: Hye-Youn Lee is vitally compelling, notably when exercising her considerable coloratura skills, and Ji-Min Park has a sweet and powerful tenor which goes well with an expressive romantic principal’s face. Lee’s delivery of Violetta’s mixed reactions at the end Act I , from “Ah, fors'è lui che l'anima” through to “Sempre libera” left me gasping, a remarkable finale. It was a good foretaste of what was to come.

Baritone Roland Wood as Giorgio Germont is a formidable paterfamilias in Act II, attractive as the mature counterpoint, an earnest and sympathetic character with the right voice for the part – beautifully rich and expansive, but with a certain harsh quality, apparent when he is urging his son Alfredo to go back home in“Di Provenza il mar, il suol”. Wood has the potential to steal the stage, though not here. The party scene in the second part of Act II, the one at Flora’s house where the guests are not just happy drunks but a ruthless, more unpleasant bunch, was an opportunity not just for ensemble work in which to display the considerable talents of the Opera North Chorus, but for a touch of comedy: the fancy-dress gipsy dancers put on a snappy, burlesque version of Carmen, complete with names on placards, and the matadors pranced wonderfully to avoid a large bull’s head. Consequently, Alfredo’s outrageous outburst, when he flings his winnings at Violetta (an impressive Park) has full dramatic force in contrast to the hilarity. Peter Savidge is a strong Baron Douphol throughout, rather malevolent.

Victoria Sharp (Flora) Daniel Norman (Gaston) and Ladies of Chorus of Opera North © Richard H Smith
Victoria Sharp (Flora) Daniel Norman (Gaston) and Ladies of Chorus of Opera North
© Richard H Smith
The medical journey through lungs on the screen returns briefly with the deathbed scene in Act III, replacing the central circle which had been dominating the set (designer Madeleine Boyd), a reference to the symbolism of the art of the Far East, where a circle can stand for perfection – or reunion. In the gloom at the back, white-masked men – old clients and partygoers – are lurking to watch the proceedings, just discernible. Lee excels as she moves through the gamut of emotions, at her pathetic best as she hands the portrait locket to Alfredo and as she stands, arms outstretched, on the bed for her illusory surge of revived power. When she finally crumples, director Alessandro Talevi gives us a memorable coup de théatre: the white-masked and white-gloved men are seen to applaud, politely and heartlessly. So, an opera deemed hideous in Victorian England because of its storyline can still have connotations of hideousness, but for different reasons, mainly because of the disease, which has yet to be eradicated, while the plot can be considered to be unusually credible on a literal level, and a timeless condemnation of double standards.

Gianluca Marcianò, a young conductor new to Opera North, made sure that the orchestra produced sounds perfectly wedded to the dramatic action, taking it through all the themes and tonal shifts in great style. This production of one of Verdi’s most popular and touching operas is an excellent start to the new season.