Elijah Moshinsky’s interpretation of Verdi’s tragic masterpiece La Traviata has been wowing Opera Australia audiences since the ’90s. The latest iteration – both visually rich and lovingly handled by its stars – doesn’t let down the canon. By Peter Craven.

Opera Australia’s ‘La Traviata’

Opera Australia’s 2018 production of ‘La Traviata’ at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
Opera Australia’s 2018 production of ‘La Traviata’ at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

La Traviata is one of the greatest of Verdi’s operas. It stands with Rigoletto and Il trovatore as a masterpiece of his early middle period and is also in its poignant way one of his most popular works with its almost schematic interplay of the tenor who wants the girl, the deeper-voiced father figure who says no and the woman who suffers it all – in this case tragically. Opera Australia’s current revival is a reanimation of the vintage production by Elijah Moshinsky and it does the work proud with a commanding, sometimes cool, sometimes rent Violetta from the American soprano Corinne Winters and an able big-voiced Alfredo Germont in Yosep Kang and a gorgeous-toned Germont père from José Carbó. And Moshinsky (here “revived” by Constantine Costi) stands up exceptionally well in this very dark chocolate box opera, which had a fair whack of establishment Melbourne, as well as opera diehards, cooing when it opened on Tuesday night at the State Theatre.

George Bernard Shaw was not wrong to say there is not a note of the mature Verdi that does not further the drama. And La Traviata presents that maturity with an extraordinary freshness and verve. This is the musical dramatisation of La Dame aux Camélias by Dumas fils, and represents the absolute centre, the populist heart of 19th-century romanticism. But it is remarkable how much steel and swerve and depth of feeling Verdi brings to the melodrama he transfigured in 1853.

Part of his trick is the way Violetta, the courtesan, is presented from the start as the most effervescent funster in a world where drink seems a metaphor for licence. And yet we believe in her love for Alfredo – we believe in the reality of her passion as the erotic expression of an authentic love –and this somehow makes us accept the extraordinary renunciation that the Germont father wrings from her. In dramatic terms it might seem that the renunciation takes place all too easily, except Verdi’s music has such an overpowering nostalgia of moral authority that we swallow the girl swallowing the old man’s pious ascetic wisdom just as we swallow his ultimate acceptance that the whore transfigured by love (and suffering) is a true daughter, the truest kind of spouse.

Isaiah Berlin, that canny old historian of politics and ideas, was a Verdi tragic and it’s interesting that Moshinsky, who wrote a thesis supervised by him at Oxford, has always been such a natural Verdian. It’s as if he understands that the melodrama and the populism of Verdi, his alternation of tumpty tum with great lashings of extroverted passion, is the necessary rhetoric. He also understands an art that is intrinsically, not superficially, dramatic and that Verdi’s endless command of musical variegation of idiom and his lack of embarrassment in the face of the popular is not a form of vulgarity – or not just – it’s a deep well of folk intensities full of a sense of the marvellous and the deeply moving that has few parallels outside the still immensity of popular feeling in which Dickens saw his own face and the face of the world.

And Moshinsky, with his instinctive refinement and restraint, is an ideal mirror and medium for Verdi because he has no desire to subdue him to a modish derangement of his own conception. Corinne Winters cut her teeth as Violetta in Peter Konwitschny’s production of La Traviata at the English National Opera in 2013. This deconstruction of Verdi’s Italianate Victorianism cut the score to an interval-free hour and 50 minutes and chucked a few chairs into empty spaces and presented frames behind which there were frames.

This may – paradoxically – have concentrated Winters’ sense of the latent power of the character but it’s good to see this performance with its stunning E flat “Sempre libera” in the very traditional, but never cheesy, setting of Moshinsky’s production.

Winters has spoken of Maria Callas as “ma maîtresse” because “she is strength, vulnerability, beauty and rawness wrapped into one”, and it’s interesting to see her performance in a production that is clearly designed to show what Verdi can do rather than what can be done with Verdi.

Moshinsky is an admirer of Ingmar Bergman’s stage work and in his long career he became the kind of opera director who “made nothing happen” – a bit like Auden’s conception of poetry – but did so with a lucid and illuminating grace. This was written all over the great production of Don Carlos Moshinsky did for Opera Australia in 2015. That uncanny combination of stillness and grandeur is there, a bit more quietly, in this classic production of Traviata from 1994.

It helps, no doubt, that the man who as a youngster was third flute for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has an implicitly musical sense of the drama. Thus his production of La Traviata seems to come out of the theatrical vigour of Verdi’s music rather than decorate it or subdue it to an alternative conception by to-ing and fro-ing with it dialectically. It’s decades now since Moshinsky pointed out to a direction-besotted world that some of the opera productions with the highest reputations in contemporary history, productions in which great singer–actors had been transfixing (think Callas and Tito Gobbi in Tosca), were by directors such as Visconti and Zeffirelli, who for all their eminence and the unmistakability of their signatures were not interested in reinterpretation for its own sake. If they were auteurs, it was not at the expense of the authority of the composer.

So this is a La Traviata that will make the punters glow at its touches of visual richness: the shimmying gypsies, the austere intimations of death and desolation in the starkness of the later settings, the sense of a round of drunk hedonists incited into song like an anthem of lust.

But it is a restrained and necessary frame for the drama and the music that is its idiom and realisation. No doubt some people will yearn for the full radiant bloom of Nicole Car’s Violetta, but it is hard to fault Winters. She glides, she soars with a magnificence of coloratura that is merely the theatrical expression of a wholly consistent characterisation, sometimes coolly self-possessed in the face of tightly controlled desire, sometimes enraptured, sometimes very convincingly at the edge of despair. This is a very contemporary Violetta – musically flawless but with a convincing and enshrouding self-possession that rises to meet the implicit tragedy with which Verdi, almost against the odds, transfigures melodrama into tragedy.

Yosep Kang is a buoyantly sung Alfredo – less distinctive as an actor but filling out the rather dumb passion of the character with plenty of lusty sound. José Carbó is everything you would want as the Germont dad, full of eloquence, beautifully musical in his articulation, as well as credibly human through the dizzying simplicities of the character’s moralism and decencies and contrition.

Carlo Montanaro conducts with a natural command of pace so that the drama and the music are as one and this so familiar opera, with its prettiness and lushness and its greater gulfs of sorrow, comes across as the thing of beauty it is. Grandma will be pleased but the kids will see that yesteryear’s way of doing things remains not only viable but in Moshinsky’s hands more vigorous than any alternative.


Arts Diary

SOUND Thembi Soddell: Held Down, Expanding

Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne, April 26-29

VISUAL ART Julie Dowling: Babanyu (Friends for Life)

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until August 13

VISUAL ART Dwelling Poetically: Mexico City, a case study

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, until June 24

THEATRE Batch Festival

SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, until April 28

VISUAL ART Mystery Walls: Extraordinary Art from Private Collections

Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston, until June 3

VISUAL ART Judith Van Heeren: Sea Garden

Murray White Room, Melbourne, until May 5

MULTIMEDIA Creative Generation Excellence Awards in Visual Art 2018

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until July 29

MUSIC Groovin the Moo

Adelaide Showground, April 27

Maitland Showground, New South Wales, April 28

University of Canberra, April 29

Last chance

LITERATURE Speculate Literary Festival

Gasworks Theatre, Melbourne, April 28

DANCE Mirror Mirror

Warehouse Space South, Launceston, until April 22

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 21, 2018 as "Courtesan injection".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.