I could not have asked for a more magical setting in which to watch Verdi's La Traviata. In front of me was the floating stage, surrounded by gently rippling water glistening in the evening moonlight. On the left rose the buildings of Sydney's central business district, while on my right was the beautiful harbour bridge and opera house.

Emma Matthews as Violetta © Lisa Tomasetti
Emma Matthews as Violetta
© Lisa Tomasetti

This production of Opera on the Harbour was the first such production to have been staged in Sydney and is set to become an annual event. I was worried prior to the performance what the sound quality would be like due to the scale of the production, but I need not have worried. The sound quality and amplification of soloists, chorus and orchestra was first-class as indeed was the quality of the cast. Emma Matthews, standing in for Rachelle Durkin as Violetta, and Ji-Min Park as Alfredo were both outstanding.

Sydney Opera House, where Opera Australia normally stage their operas, is a relatively small opera house. However, for La Traviata, they utilised the extra space and ambience to the full to put on a real show. The party scene in Act One was a visual spectacle, full of joie-de-vivre, wonderful costumes and a great sense of celebration. This was crowned in a very special way at its conclusion when a barrage of fireworks was ignited, lighting up the harbour sky in a glorious display to gasps of delight from the audience. The stage was even complete with a massive chandelier, which was able to be moved by means of a large electronic arm. At the end of Act One, it doubled up as a lift as Violetta entered a small capsule at its base and was raised up into the night sky.

The first half of Act Two, where Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, tells Violetta that she must give up his son, was superbly sung. This contains some of the most heart-wrenching music in the opera as Giorgio Germont calmly, almost calculatingly, breaks Violetta's heart. Warwick Fyfe, playing Germont, delivered a powerful performance, singing with foreboding authority, with almost cold emotion. Alfredo receives a letter from Violetta stating that their affair must end. Incensed, not knowing the full circumstances, Alfredo follows Violetta to a party to take his revenge.

The ensuing party almost began during the interval as two cross-dressed vaudeville characters roamed the audience entertaining the public in an almost pantomime fashion before joining the party on stage to begin the second half of the evening's entertainment. As with the party scene in Act One, this was another visual feast, beginning with brightly dressed gypsies and matadors performing dances respectively. The climax of the scene comes when Alfredo publicly humiliates Violetta by throwing money at her. This was a truly spine-chilling moments. Alfredo immediately regrets his actions, his father disowns him and both he and Violetta are distraught.

The final act of La Traviata is perhaps one of the most intimate in all opera. Violetta is dying and worries that she will not see Alfredo again. Eventually, Alfredo and his father do appear and become reconciled. Violetta and Alfredo talk of plans for their new life together, although tragically, it is all in vain as Violetta dies. As the music reached a climax, Violetta's death was also marked by the knell of a single firework, which was launched high into the sky over the harbour, before exploding in a final cascade.

This brought to a close a superlative evening. Opera Australia did not just play off the glorious setting, but really pulled out all the stops musically too. Emma Matthews and Ji-Min Park played the parts of the two lovers with great emotional intensity and with apparent vocal ease, the upper ends of their register ringing out with impressive clarity. However, such an immense production as this requires a lot of expertise from a large number of people and it was fitting at the opera's conclusion that all those involved with the production came on stage to receive warm applause from the audience. It was an evening which I will not forget in a long time. The benchmark for Opera on the Harbour has been set incredibly high. I am already looking forward to next year!