Elijah Moshinsky’s lavish Belle Époque production of La traviata is a delightful experience for opera neophytes. However, since premiering in 1994, its return every two or three years adds another layer of familiarity to this classic for Opera Australia's frequent flyers. Such familiarity could never breed contempt for such a visually beautiful, dramatically powerful production, but it does put considerable pressure on the cast to deliver something extraordinary. For this opening of the Melbourne autumn season, the performances were enjoyable, indeed sometimes very fine but, like watching a favourite old movie again, there were no thrills.

Corinne Winters (Violetta) © Jeff Busby
Corinne Winters (Violetta)
© Jeff Busby

First performed in Venice in 1853, Verdi's La traviata is a classic melodrama about a wealthy courtesan, Violetta, who gives it all away for the man who truly loves her, Alfredo. His father, Giorgio, persuades the distraught and consumptive Violetta to give up her son, and tragedy ensues.

American soprano Corinne Winters made her Australian debut as Violetta. She seemed a little unsure at first – perhaps because of the brisk pace set by conductor Carlo Montanaro. Her coloratura became less cautious, more warm and expressive, ultimately catching fire during Violetta’s demise in the final act. Winters also opened up dramatically during the course of the performance, though there was never much chemistry between her and leading man Yosep Kang. From naïve then lovesick, vengeful then remorseful, his Alfredo was otherwise fairly convincing, and his tenor very pleasing: clear tone, fine control, phrasing and diction.

Corinne Winters (Violetta) and Yosep Kang (Alfredo) © Jeff Busby
Corinne Winters (Violetta) and Yosep Kang (Alfredo)
© Jeff Busby

The leads’ performances were noticeably lifted by the arrival of José Carbó in Act 2. He adroitly balanced Giorgio’s sympathy and self-righteousness (as modern audiences would interpret his demands), and his baritone was like smooth, burnished mahogany. Carbó’s moving “Di Provenza il mar” was the evening’s highlight. Among the minor roles, Natalie Aroyan was notable for her assured voice and presence as Violetta's maid, Adrian Tamburini brought considerable menace to the role of the courtesan’s jealous protector, Baron Douphol, and Dominca Matthews was a swirling, cheeky delight as her friend, Flora.

Corinne Winters (Violetta) and José Carbó (Germont) © Jeff Busby
Corinne Winters (Violetta) and José Carbó (Germont)
© Jeff Busby

The ever reliable Opera Australia Chorus was in particularly good form. Splendid harmony and dynamics were the reward for obviously rigorous rehearsal, also evident in the poise with which they moved about the very crowded, busy party scenes (crammed no doubt for effect, but also because the sets are contrived with the much smaller Sydney Opera House stage in mind). Apart from that tendency to hurry, Orchestra Victoria gave very able support. The drama of Verdi's tuneful, romantic score was beautifully expressed, most notably in the strings, delicate then lush, and mournful clarinet solo.

Michael Yeargan’s set and Peter J Hall’s costumes are a feast for the eye in the party scenes. These riots of Belle Époque high society colour, gilding, rich fabrics and furnishings are contrasted with two sparse, grey scenes: an autumnal courtyard for Violetta's meeting with Giorgio, and her grand salon all but emptied of objects, colour and life for the playing out of her demise. This contrast vividly demonstrates the choices she must make, and the circumstances imposed upon her.

Corinne Winters (Violetta) © Jeff Busby
Corinne Winters (Violetta)
© Jeff Busby

Opera Australia could keep wheeling out this much-loved production for another 24 years with little or no complaint, but stronger casting is what’s required to get a loyal audience to sit up and take notice.