The Thin Lady Sings
I was extremely hesitant when the Singapore Lyric Opera offered me tickets to review La Traviata because what I know of western opera can easily fit on the head of a pin - with space left over for the entire cast of The Ring Cycle. After nearly ten years of writing about theatre, I believe I have a fairly firm grasp on the standards and expectations for many genres of theatre. Like, I suspect, many Inkpot readers, however, I have had a very limited exposure to opera, both in terms of stage performances as well as music. I have watched only a couple of fully staged opera productions before so my experience of opera consists largely of hearing snatches of the music in films or on TV.
My new year resolution in 2008, however, is to broaden my horizons and learn more about other art forms besides theatre so I decided to bite the bullet and rise to the challenge. The Singapore Lyric Opera was also very supportive: the idea was for me to share my relatively virgin experience with the Inkpot's other equally opera-challenged readers - and, hopefully, show them that opera is not the big, scary animal that many think it is.
Indeed, I found much to appreciate in La Traviata. There were aspects of the opera that, as I expected, I initially had difficulties coming to terms with: the exaggerated acting, the contrived plot, the florid lines of poetry. However, once I accepted these as part of the genre and just tried to take the production for what it was, I enjoyed the performance a lot more than I thought I would. For example, classical music is not what I would ever put on my iPod but, to my surprise, I was swept away by Verdi's dramatic score, alternatingly rousing and haunting and energized by a live orchestra (the impressive Philharmonic Orchestra) and powerful vocal performances by the three leads. I am not able to hum any of the score after the show, to be honest, but, as I watched the show, I found the music stirring and evocative and it certainly helped to build the emotional peaks and troughs of the love story that was unfolding onstage. Director Stephen Barlow's decision to restore Verdi's two-interval structure was also a wise one as it made the music of La Traviata less overwhelming for audience members like me who were listening to more opera music that one evening than they had had in the last couple of years.
I also could not help but be impressed by the obvious technical difficulty of the vocal performances. I picked up much richness and emotional force in the leads' voices. Having said that, while both Lee Jae Wook (Alfredo) and Song Kee Chang (Giorgo, his father) showed off majestic vocal power, at least to my untrained ear, their vocal delivery was rather lacking in variety at times. The same, unfortunately, could also be said for their acting performances. Lee, in particular, was rather muted and one-note and, thus, not very convincing as a man overwhelmed first with love and then with anger at his perceived betrayal by his lover. Singapore-based opera sensation Yuen as Violetta, the misunderstood courtesan with a heart of gold, has a beautiful soprano voice which was strong and clear even during difficult runs but where she really outshone the other two principal cast members was in her wider range when it came to using her voice to express emotions. She also benefited from having more shading in her acting performance (as much as can be expected in light of the expectation of larger-than-life performances in opera anyway): I had a greater sense of her character's growth and journey than I did of Lee's even though it is Alfredo who has to eventually learn the error of his ways and seek redemption from a spurned and dying Violetta.
I also liked the large ensemble cast all of whom were fully present in their performance and added much vibrancy to their two key scenes, that of the lavish house-party which opens La Traviata and the one where Alfredo humiliates Violetta by publicly denouncing her in front of all her friends. The elaborate costumes and hairdos which brought out the festive and decadent flavour of 1889 Paris (which Barlow had transposed the play some forty years to) and the spirited Spanish-influenced dance number by a troupe of matadors and gypsies played by dancers from the Rose Borromeo Spanish Dance Company and Dance Circle Studios were the other memorable elements of the production. Opera thrives on the big and grand and I felt that this production achieved it for the most part. Where La Traviata stumbled in this regard, however, were the sets which looked most distractingly like they were made of cheap cardboard, especially in the first act. More effort really should have been made to make them more ornate; failing which, perhaps the lighting design should have been more striking and high-contrast so that this flaw would have been less obvious.
La Traviata was a good place to start on my journey into
opera because the production is very accessible (aided as I was by detailed
programme notes and line-by-line translations in English and Mandarin
on the screens next to the stage) and even though it feels cliched after
inspiring everything from Pretty Woman to Moulin Rouge
and is marred by a middle section and final climax that are drawn out
for far too long, the love story remains a dramatic and engaging one.
There was a part of me that would have liked to have seen some re-imagining
of the Verdi original, the last opera I had seen being the film version
of Julie Taymor's The Magic Flute which was staggering in its
visual power and use of abstract symbols. On the other hand, I am also
glad that this was a very literal presentation because, while it lacked
the exhilaration of the fresh and new, it gave me an insight into opera
in its most traditional form and this proved satisfying on its own terms.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /