Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s La traviata, revived for Opera Australia by Tama Matheson, goes some way to show that plush costumes and lavish sets sprinkled with a few clever visual cues can compensate for shortcomings in the music and singing to make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong: most of the singing on Thursday evening was superb, and some of the orchestral playing did shine, but they would scarcely have been able to carry the day without the other elements.

In his Australian debut, Rame Lahaj cut a dashing figure as Alfredo Germont. Not only is his voice strong enough to carry far into the back of the auditorium, it is also smooth and flexible enough to deliver the nuances of his wildly fluctuating moods. Reaching his high notes with ease and holding firmly on to them, he deftly handled a variety of inflections and finely honed phrasing. Expressive without being melodramatic, neither did he overplay his hand.

José Carbó, despite being a very solid singer, especially in “Di Provenza il mar”, was a little staid as Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. The role provides plenty of scope for dramatic expression – he starts off as a self-righteous father blackmailing Violetta ostensibly for the good of the Germont family, but soon becomes a sympathetic admirer of Violetta’s generosity towards his son. Yet I hardly noticed a change in his facial expression throughout his lengthy appearance in Act II.  He even looked stiff bending over to comfort Violetta and certainly looked visibly uncomfortable when Violetta asked him to embrace her as daughter.

La traviata’s tale traces the transformation of Violetta Valéry from a hedonistic courtesan to Alfredo’s doting and domesticated lover, and then to the tragic victim of his interfering father.  Whoever tackles this role also has to be equally at home as a dramatic, lyrical and coloratura soprano. It’s almost as if Verdi, like a genius professor hell bent on failing all but his best students, set the role up for sopranos to fail. It didn’t help that it was the first time Lorina Gore had played this role. Her delivery of “Addio del passato” on her death bed was powerfully tragic, overflowing with pathos. Yet in her signature Act I arias “Ah, fors’ e lui” and “Sempre Libera”, her phrasing was jagged and she forced her way out of some lines. Her navigation of the undulating twists and turns was a little erratic. A little coquettishness would also have made her a much more credible courtesan.   

Michael Yeargan undoubtedly pulled out all the stops in his set designs. The drapery, furniture and décor of Violetta’s house in Act I are elaborate and exuberant in their detail; Giorgio Germont tried to persuade Violetta to leave Alfredo in the garden outside their house, replete with bare tree trunks and the occasional yellow leaf falling from the sky, signifying autumn; the gaming parlour in the second scene of Act II was decadent to the brim; and the emaciated Violetta’s impoverishment was palpable in the naked bedroom of Act III. In a couple of scenes, the stage looked overly crowded, chairs placed at the edge of the stage in danger of toppling into the pit.

Most of the cast wore at least a couple of layers of thick material: jacket over lapelled waistcoat for men, and long velvet dresses on top of bodice over ruffled blouses for women.  The gypsy dancers in Act II, however, could have been racier.

Much as veteran opera conductor Renato Palumbo tried, he was unable to coax a velvety sound from the strings, which were uncomfortably dry at many points. The clarinet and oboe sounded desolate enough to mirror Violetta’s plight. The orchestral accompaniment was well paced to give the singers effective support.

The quality of staging in Opera Australia’s La traviata helped salvage what could have been a sub-par performance in which the key protagonist under-whelmed.