I left the Sydney Opera House last night feeling vaguely dissatisfied, and yet a bit puzzled at my dissatisfaction. La Traviata is chock-full of Verdi’s most glorious music, and well though I know the score, I wasn’t feeling in the least jaded to begin with. The sets were gorgeous, the singing was at least satisfactory and at times much better than this, the orchestral playing was mostly efficient, and yet I wasn’t really touched. While many of the musical elements were in place, the drama was lacking, and one really has to become absorbed in the heart-wrenching story. The opera stands or falls by whether or not we empathise with the tragic fate of Violetta, an early example of the “tart with a heart”, and her doomed love for Alfredo.

Although it’s been on the go since the mid-1990s, this was my first time seeing the Elijah Moshinsky production of La Traviata, and a real visual treat it is. Although a “traditional” production, it actually constitutes a subtle updating of the original from 1853 to 1877. (For the Venetian censors, Verdi was forced to set the story in 1700, but after the failed first performance he restored it to contemporary Paris.) The overall concept was influenced by the canvases of painters such as Renoir and Manet. Act I took place in a richly decorated salon – walls, furniture, paintings, costumes all proclaimed Belle Époque Paris, and the same space (minus all the fittings) was the setting for Act III. Act II began with an exterior of Violetta and Alfredo’s country retreat, the countryside indicated by the carpet of leaves and some bare trunks. After a surprisingly short hiatus, this was totally transformed into another splendid party scene, this time with more of a Byzantine feel.

The role of Violetta is both coveted and feared by sopranos, and is one Emma Matthews sang to great acclaim in the Opera on the Harbour production last year, winning a Helpmann award in the process. Last night she was vocally assured, and captured both the frivolous and the emotional sides of the character pretty well. As expected, Matthews came fully into her own at moments such as the Act I closing cabaletta, “Sempre libera”, where her coloratura abilities delivered pearl-like runs. It was a pity that we were deprived of the second verse of “Ah fors’è lui”, not the only occasion there were cuts made to the score.

Arnold Rutkowski’s Alfredo was a bit hit-and-miss. At the outset, in the famous “Libiamo”, his tone sounded appealingly dark. In his off-stage serenade at the end of Act I (a reprise of his earlier love declaration “Di quell’amor”), the unwritten but almost obligatory top C sounded fine at distance; however, the same note at the end of the “O mio rimorso” Act II was very strained. Unfortunately, there was little real chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo here: the kiss at the end of their Act I duet felt forced. Moreover, Rutkowski’s acting in Act II left much to be desired – there was rather too much aimless pacing too and fro.

Some of the blame for the dramatic failings must also rest on the shoulders of José Carbó, who played the role of Germont senior, Alfredo’s father. The Violetta-Germont scene is the most crucial in the whole opera: out of an entirely understandable concern for his son, Germont resorts to moral blackmail, and Violetta succumbs to his arguments. It is in this scene that we learn of Violetta’s self-sacrificing nature, but in a good performance Germont does not lose our sympathy either. Unfortunately, Carbó’s demeanour was stilted, even uninvolved throughout: perhaps he was emoting facially, but it didn’t communicate back to Row N. Nonetheless his was a welcomely solid vocal presence in an otherwise light-voiced cast of main principals. In moments such as “Pura siccome”, he demonstrated his warm lyrical tone, although I felt that the line was at times spoiled by over-emphatic breaks (the breath pauses somehow had an intrusive force).

Dominica Matthews (Flora), Natalie Aroyan (Annina), Richard Anderson (the Doctor) and especially Stephen Smith (Gaston) all impressed, and the chorus was as usual well-rehearsed and disciplined. Patrick Lange directed the orchestra efficiently, and showed sensitivity in bringing the volume down so Emma Matthews could be properly heard. There were a few moments of poor coordination with the singers, and the violins were rather uneven at the start of Act II, but on the whole the impression was one of efficiency if not interpretative depth. In a way that I found unusual and refreshing in an Opera Australia production, the curtain remained down for the preludes to Acts I and III.