July 2013 • The Coade Theatre, Bryanston, Dorset
An opera in four parts by Giuseppe Verdi • Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave • Based on the novel La Dame au Camélias by Alexander Dumas • Sung in Italian with English subtitles
The beautiful courtesan Violetta Valéry, who is suffering from Tuberculosis, is hosting one of her brilliant supper parties. One of her guests is Alfredo Germont, who immediately declares his love for her. She agrees to abandon her debauched lifestyle and they leave Paris to live together at her country house. Unbeknown to Alfredo, Violetta is forced to sell some of her jewels to fund their idyllic existence. Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father arrives and whilst acknowledging her sincerity, demands that Violetta renounce his son to enable his daughter to marry well. She determines to make the sacrifice and departs, leaving a simple note for a distraught Alfredo.
Later, Flora Bervoix is holding a party at which Violetta arrives on the arm of an old admirer, Baron Douphol – much to the fury of Alfredo, who is also there. The two men play cards; Alfredo wins consistently. Unable to persuade Violetta to go with him, Alfredo insults her publicly and is challenged to a duel by the Baron. Violetta’s illness worsens and her friends gradually desert her. She becomes bedbound and penniless. Hearing of her condition, Alfredo at last returns. His father has told him of Violetta’s noble sacrifice, and has urged him to seek her forgiveness. Overjoyed at the sight of him, Violetta attempts to rise, but it is too late.
Cast & Creative Team
|July 22 & 25||July 23 & 26(m)|
|Violetta Valéry, (soprano) a courtesan||Anna Jeruc-Kopec||Jessica Muirhead|
|Alfredo Germont, (tenor) her lover||Peter Auty||Adam Smith|
|Giorgio Germont, (baritone) his father||Gerard Quinn||Gerard Quinn|
|Flora Bervoix, (mezzo-soprano) Violetta’s friend||Carolyn Dobbin||Carolyn Dobbin|
|Gastone, (tenor) Viscount de Letorières||David Phipps Davis||David Phipps Davis|
|Baron Douphol, (baritone) Violetta’s protector||Stuart Pendred||Stuart Pendred|
|Marquis d’Obigny, (bass) Flora’s protector||Pauls Putnins||Pauls Putnins|
|Dr. Grenvil,(bass) Physician||Mark Richardson||Mark Richardson|
|Annina, (soprano) Violetta’s maid||Helen Johnson||Helen Johnson|
|Giuseppe, (tenor) Violetta’s servant||Tom Kinch||Tom Kinch|
|Flora’s Servant, (bass)||David O’Hanlon||David O’Hanlon|
|Messenger, (baritone)||James Corrigan||James Corrigan|
|Party Guests, dancers, servants|
|Assistant Director & Choreographer||Terry John Bates|
|Costume Realisation||Rebecca Hopkins|
|Lighting Designer||Bas Berensen|
|Chorus Director||Nicolas Mansfield|
|Assistant Chorus Master||Kelvin Lim|
|Orchestra Leader||Robert Gibbs|
There were no major revelations or re-appraisals in Jonathan Miller’s new staging of La traviata for Dorset Opera, again at home for its July season at Bryanston School – and, having also staged Der fliegende Holländer, Roderick Kennedy’s is the only UK summer festival this year to mount bicentennial Verdi and Wagner productions. Much in evidence, though, was Miller’s clear-eyed scrutiny of character, particularly so in the case of Violetta. Steve Howell’s elegant fixed set worked well, although I didn’t care for the uneasy mix of faux-rococo French and utility furniture. Violetta received her guests wearing pantaloons and a dashing sash, smoking a cheroot – very Georges Sand – which neatly summed up her fragile, defiant-but-dependent position (of society, but not in it), and she wore a dress for domestic bliss in the country.
At the head of the first of two casts, the Polish soprano Anna Jeruc-Kopec conveyed Violetta’s isolation and composure admirably, with minimal gesture. Her voice, in the small theatre, sounded big and colourful, and you could hear all the coloratura, including her overplayed scoops up to the note. ‘Sempre libera’ had an interesting bite and potential delirium, and showed off her emotional range impressively in Act 2. There were no melodramatic exaggerations in the last act, which was the stronger for it.
As Alfredo, Peter Auty showed off the vulnerable intensity that he delivers so persuasively. There was an easy chemistry between him and Violetta, and he gave the ‘Brindisi’ an attractive bounce. Occasionally there was an uncharacteristic opaqueness to his middle, quiet voice, but his top rang out brilliantly – and he’s a very ingratiating actor.
Directorially, it was strange that Germont père didn’t respond immediately to Violetta’s disclosure that she’s terminally ill, given that otherwise, Gerard Quinn’s portrait of the gradually unbending father was strong on detail and beautifully sung – ‘Di Provenza’ rightly drew warm applause. The chorus (supplied by the Dorset Opera summer course) sang with inexhaustible attack, and the conductor Phillip Thomas drew some authentic-sounding, raw Italian tinta from the Dorset Opera Orchestra.
To call Dorset Opera a ‘semi-amateur’ affair would be undermining the achievements of this hybrid of a summer school and opera festival. Eager punters from all over the world flock to Bryanston School, set in acres of ramblingly lovely English countryside, to take part in two weeks of residential workshops under the experienced tutelage of Nicolas Mansfield. The efforts of this motley but enthusiastic assortment of amateurs, from wide-eyed teenagers to housewives and doughty retired businessmen, culminate in two fully staged productions in the school’s well-equipped Coade Theatre.
Roderick Kennedy, artistic director of Dorset Opera, is a dab hand at using his connections in the opera world garnered from decades singing as a professional bass. The benchmark for quality is high, and this year the expectations were even higher, with the arrival of Jonathan Miller to direct a new production of Verdi’s La traviata.
I have to say ‘new’ advisedly, as La traviata has become one of Miller’s calling cards in opera houses around the world, from his classic English National Opera production back in 1996 to more recent forays in Vancouver and New York (City Opera and Glimmerglass). Miller brought his standard Traviata with him to Dorset, with little variation on the theme: indeed, it’s rare to see such a traditional production of Verdi’s popular classic these days. (One diverting innovation from the director was to have his 1850s Violetta in black velvet trousers, referenced from drawings of courtesans by Paul Gavarni, the ‘Hogarth’ of 19th-century Paris – Miller is nothing if not clever in his sources.)
As usual, Dorset punched above its weight musically, under conductor Phillip Thomas: the chorus brimmed with have-a-go gusto in their party revels. Polish-born soprano Anna Jeruc-Kopec was an intense, brilliant-edged Violetta, full of vocal thrills; her robustness in the early part of the opera made her seem all the more touching in her demise. Gerard Quinn was a solemn, dignified presence as the fatherly Germont; Peter Auty was not ideal casting as the youthfully ardent Alfredo – a fine singer at his best, he seemed uncomfortable in the role, physically as much as vocally.
In the end, Jonathan Miller’s much-anticipated directorial hand seemed to have touched the proceedings only lightly and, in a sense, his unflinching literalism made this Traviata rather striking.
AS soon as it was announced that Dorset Opera had included La Traviata, directed by Jonathan Miller, as part of its 2013 festival season at Bryanston, tickets for the three performances sold out in double quick time.
Coupled with a Wagner opera for the festival, it meant that the chorus of (often) young singers had the added challenge of learning both Italian and German during their intensive three week course under the direction of a professional team of directors, choreographers and musicians. And magnificently they rose to that challenge in both productions.
The demands of performing the Verdi opera on both Friday and Saturday meant a double cast for the principal roles of Violetta and Alfredo, and if the Friday audience (of which I was thrilled to be part) had the “second” cast, I can’t think how good the other Violetta might have been.
Jessica Muirhead is as accomplished an actor as she is a compelling and soaring soprano, and so the shock of love, the torment of loss and the tragedy of early death were writ large on the Coade Hall stage.
Gerard Quinn thrilled the audience with the beauty of his singing in the role of the self-serving Germont Pere.
The young Adam Smith was a lusty Alfredo, with Helen Johnson matching her mistress’s acting skills as the devoted Annina.
Phillip Thomas conducted the fine orchestra with a delicacy and intensity that matched the story of the courtesan who died for love – and consumption – in this memorable performance that was a credit to all involved in Dorset Opera, and had audience members asking to book for next year’s Aida andFidelio as soon as possible.
Rural opera festivals can be serious rivals for the big London houses
Smaller stages at Longborough and Dorset show what can be done with limited resources, bags of enthusiasm – and one Jonathan Miller
If I’ve learnt one thing over the past year, it’s that the big London houses have serious rivals in the strangest of places. I’ve been wowed by great productions and fabulous singers – especially sopranos – in Wexford, Hamburg, little Longborough and most recently, of all places, Bryanston School in Dorset. And I know I’ve hardly scratched the surface.
Wexford in southern Ireland embraces opera for just two weeks each autumn, but its mission – to reclaim forgotten works – produced the highlight of my operatic year in Jessica Muirhead’s Vreli in Delius’s unjustly neglected A Village Romeo and Juliet. A thrilling soprano talent, I noted.
Hamburg is not seen as the operatic hub of Germany, but the excellent Simone Young has this summer staged a festival of all 10 of Wagner’s major works over a three-week Wagner-Wahn period of madness. I saw Das Rheingold, with the Rhinemaidens frolicking on a four-poster (the ‘bed’ of the Rhine) and lots of psychology, and wished I could have stayed for the rest.
I did see a complete Ring though – the unlikeliest of all, in a field in Gloucestershire, where Martin Graham’s 500-seater miracle showed that small can be beautiful, even for Wagner. I’ve written about Longborough’s amazing Ring in the September issue of Gramophone, out on August 20. In its own way, it was as worthy an enterprise as Barenboim’s starry concert staging at the Proms. Anthony Negus is a true Wagnerian conductor and Rachel Nicholls a smashing young Brünnhilde, with bags of development ahead of her. Stylish Lee Bisset, meanwhile, took on three, deliciously differentiated, roles – Freia (unforgiving of the gods who’d betrayed her and left her at the mercy of the giants Fafner and Fasolt), Sieglinde and Gutrune.
And she wasn’t finished. In no time at all she was in Dorset for her fourth major Wagnerian role of the summer – a dreamy Senta in a riveting Der Fliegende Holländer by Paul Carr. This was my first taste of Dorset Opera, whose huge 80-strong chorus is made up of amateurs, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of their performance. The verve and vigour with which they undertake their task is remarkable. The stars of this Dutchman may have been Bisset and a splendid Mark Doss in the title role – were we really in a countryside school rather than the major opera house where these two clearly belong? – but the focused enthusiasm of Nicolas Mansfield’s chorus is what makes Dorset Opera special.
Two performances of the Dutchman were accompanied by three Traviatas, the principals double-cast, in a new production commissioned from one Dr Jonathan Miller, who at 79 has lost none of his wit or savoir faire, despite alienating the big houses who will no longer work with him. It’s their loss, by the way. English National Opera’s three-opera retrospective last season reminded us just how good a director he is – who could ever forget his Mikado (or indeed his famous ENO ‘Mafia’ Rigoletto, sadly no longer in the rep)?
Miller focuses on what’s happening inside his characters’ heads. When he talks to you his hands are quietly but continually illustrating what he’s saying. He has no time for modern directorial fads, or indeed directors (he’s not interested in other interpretations and has refused to go to an opera for 10 years), and likes to leave a piece like Traviata in the era Verdi wrote it. For Miller, less is more. He mocks the likes of Angela Gheorghiu (who can’t stand him) dancing round the stage when her Violetta is about to die of consumption and confines both his Violettas here to their deathbeds for the entirety of the last act.
Dorset’s second-cast Violetta was Wexford’s Vreli! But with Verdi’s most celebrated heroine Muirhead’s competing with every star soprano who’s ever lived. She eagerly embraces Miller’s philosophy – ‘I was so excited to work with him,’ she told me. ‘He’s the coolest of cool!’ Her first Violetta, and the characterisation is impressive already.
The other Violetta was Polish-born Anna Jeruc-Kopec, who’d had more time with the orchestra. Another splendid singer on the festival circuit, she didn’t much like being confined to her bed. Perhaps she’ll do a Gheorghiu when she reprises the role in studio performances… at this year’s Wexford festival! Yes, it’s a small world on the festival circuit.
It was quite a coup for Dorset to secure Miller, who strips the sets to the bare essentials – less on occasion. It was a joy to see him still ruffling feathers on the operatic stage. The oldies can certainly show how’s it’s done!
Wexford, Longborough and Dorset are among younger festivals that consistently punch above their weight and show what can be done with limited resources, bags of enthusiasm…and singers quite good enough, given half a chance, to break into the top rank.