Verdi’s La Traviata is frequently listed as one of the most often programmed operas worldwide. Since it premiered in 1854, it must have greeted audiences around the world tens of thousands of times. It’s no wonder that all directors feel compelled to find new angles of interpretation to inject freshness and vitality into the opera – Willy Decker’s bold attempt at contemporary near-minimalism in Salzburg and then New York being the most memorable in the last decade.

© courtesy of Opera Hong Kong
© courtesy of Opera Hong Kong

Dieter Kaegi’s production of La Traviata for Opera Hong Kong on Sunday, with set and costume designed by William Orlandi, includes some striking colour changes symbolising the progress of the story. It opens with a white drape that hangs from the back of the stage all the way down to the orchestra pit. Standing on both sides of the stage are a photographer’s lights fitted with bounce umbrellas. As workmen roll out a red carpet across the stage, security guards bring out ropes and stands. The image of an Oscar is projected onto the drape, as men and women in tuxedos and evening dresses enter. Violetta and her lover Baron Douphol are the toast of this star-studded Hollywood party, but attention soon turns to Violetta’s secret admirer Alfredo, who breaks out into the familiar “Brindisi” drinking song. Violetta walks off the red carpet as she begins a new chapter in her life with Alfredo.

The first scene of Act II is set in a golf course, a green carpet having replaced the red one at the party, and a blue sky with scattered clouds the image of an Oscar. Alfredo has won Violetta’s heart, but they can hardly keep up the lifestyle of the rich and famous. When Alfredo leaves to prevent the sale of her prized possessions in Paris, his father Giorgio tries to persuade Violetta to leave him to preserve the family honour and save the marriage of his sister. Giving in to this request, Violetta decides to attend a party her friend Flora is throwing that night.

Giant spinning roulettes show up on the drape, behind which gypsies and matadors dance on a slope. Flora’s party, making up Act II, Scene II, is replete with gaming tables that look very much like those in Macau casinos. Alfredo wins several bets against Baron Douphol, and inflicts the ultimate insult on Violetta for her change of heart by throwing the winnings at her.

For the final act, the white drape drops to the stage providing a back stop to large white cushions on the floor. Violetta, frail with advanced tuberculosis and, according to Dr Grenvil, with only hours to live, is wearing a white nightgown. She dies in Alfredo’s arms soon after Giorgio apologises for putting his family’s honour ahead of her well-being.

Corinne Winters and Bruno Ribeiro are no Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón, but their more subtle dramatic skills and voices are well matched. Dainty and youthful, Ms. Winters has a tinge of maturity and tragic darkness in her voice; and although Mr. Ribeiro’s inflections are less acrobatic than Villazón’s, his voice has plenty of inner strength. Her Violetta is decorous, even when she sings “Sempre libera”; his Alfredo makes up for a lack of impetuosity with sincerity, but I can’t help feeling that he would have cut a more dashing figure had he been clean shaven. Silvio Zanon manages to deliver his obnoxious message with pathos, and even at the moment when he is most selfish seems to be mindful of Violetta’s sensibilities. Bass Gong Dongjian, as Dr Grenville, had no more than a cameo role, but showed enough mettle to deserve more attention.

Brian Schembri and the Hong Kong Philharmonic skilfully captured the perpetual waltz rhythm and occasional melancholic meandering to provide seamless lyrical and harmonic support to the cast. Although the strings are at times weighty, the flute and oboe stand out in the last act as fine companions to the lonely Violetta.

Dieter Kaegi’s La Traviata is a commendable attempt at artistic breakthrough. It may not be as clean and sweeping as Willy Decker’s, but the components work well together to deliver an afternoon of superb entertainment. For a young company such as Opera Hong Kong, formed in 2003, this is more than we can ask for.