The Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney.
26 March 2021.
It was a week of torrential rain and flooding, but on opening night of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, the clouds cleared to deliver the most idyllic evening for Verdi’s La Traviata.
Opera Australia has taken audiences outside of the Sydney Opera House to a most beautiful world class location at Mrs Macquarie Point in the Royal Botanical Gardens to experience the magic and grandeur of opera outdoors. Audiences arrived early to enjoy a pre-show drink and dinner from a variety of pop-up onsite restaurants and bars. Sitting outside as the sun sets against a backdrop of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the city scape and the Sydney Opera House, the beauty of Sydney Harbour is magnified and appreciated like never before, especially after a year of lockdown and the cancellation of Opera Australia’s 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
La Traviata is a timeless and captivating story that inspired Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and the movie Pretty Woman. It is a tragic love story of a young courtesan Violetta (Stacey Alleaume) who is the life of every party. Alfredo (Rame Lahaj) meets her, falls in love and pursues her; however, he does not know that she is very ill and dying. Violetta, who enjoys her freedom, decides to take a chance with Alfredo, but Alfredo’s father, Giorgio (Michael Honeyman), disapproves as Violetta’s courtesan lifestyle may bring disgrace upon his family. Violetta, who is saddened and upset, agrees to leave Alfredo and writes him a farewell love letter. Alfredo is heartbroken and angry, and when encountering Violetta, he publicly humiliates her out of fury. With her illness progressing, there is little time left for Alfredo to learn of Violetta’s undying love for him.
Alleaume carried the show, with her character Violetta central in all scenes. She delivered an outstanding performance in this demanding lead role with depth of emotion, energy and her exquisite voice. In one scene, she sublimely reached the elevated soprano notes of Verdi’s ‘Sempre Libera’, standing in a cage underneath a gigantic chandelier while being slowly lifted high above the stage.
Lahaj as the handsome and suave Alfredo was a perfect match to Alleaume. With a soaring voice and commanding stage presence, he gave a strong and moving performance. His duets with Alleaume were dazzling.
Enjoying Verdi’s musical score outdoors was an enchanting experience. Led by Conductor Brian Castles–Onion with the superb Opera Australia orchestra, the sound quality even out-doors was on point. A highlight of the evening was Verdi’s famous Brindisi (drinking song) which was wonderfully uplifting. With fireworks spectacularly setting the night sky ablaze, the audience couldn’t resist taking out their phones to capture this amazing moment.
Set Designer Brian Thomson brought the Paris cityscape to life through a silhouette of bright neon lighting, giving the set design a simple and modern feel, as not to obstruct the beauty of the natural surroundings. The extra large tilted stage had stairs on every side which cleverly provided a hidden space underneath, from which large props like couches and tables could be stored and moved on and off the set.
Giving the production elegance and opulence is the unimaginable 3.5 tonne chandelier with 10,000 sparkling crystals. The largest outdoor chandelier in the world! Hoisted high into the air by a crane, this dazzling work of art is a masterpiece of this production.
Costume Designer Tess Schofield used the 1950s as her inspiration to give the production a youthful modern feel. Violetta shines in a bright signature red party dress and sparkles in a shimmering black gown. A stand-out costume design was the colour choice for the matador dancers. Unique and vibrant, the male matador dancers wore bright and bold sparkly pink matador tights with the female dancers in tiered bright yellow and orange skirts.
The dancers not only stood out for their bold costumes but also the passion and athleticism they brought to the stage. From the beauty and elegance of the 10 couples waltzing, to the joy and vibrancy of the party scenes and the contrasting Spanish style dancing, Burns’ choreography adds to the spectacle of the production.
The large harbour stage that is built on the water gave performers no shortage of performance space, with the only challenge being their need to adapt their movement to a stage that is tilted on angle to give the audience a fantastic perspective. The Opera ensemble performers, as well as the dancers who performed turns and partner lifts executed this challenge with ease.
La Traviata is opulent, elegant and engaging, combining the beauty and emotion of a wonderful operatic score with the vibrancy of a modern musical. This world class opera set on Sydney Harbour is a breathtaking experience that is not to be missed.
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, La Traviata, is at Mrs Macquarie’s Point at the Royal Botanical Garden Sydney until 25 April. For more information, visit opera.org.au/productions/la-traviata-on-sydney-harbour.
By Nicole Saleh of Dance Informa.