Classical: Even the silences speak the dramatic truth

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It's a risk to open a new opera season with La Traviata. Few works are more familiar or better loved. Audiences come with fond memories and high expectations. But they will not, I think, be disappointed by Opera North's brand new production - at least not with its current cast.

This is the first of three new productions using fairly minimal scenery and props, which allow Opera North to present two different operas on Saturdays, and which necessarily focus attention on the efforts of the singing actors.

In Traviata this works because Annabel Adden has obtained wonderfully fluent and passionate performances from all of her three protagonists.

It is rare to see an Alfredo who comes across as a credible human being, let alone one who arouses our sympathy. Yet Tom Randle manages to do both, despite slightly awkward acting and some vocal limitations (he is, alas, no Dennis O'Neill.) In the first act he is bashful and diffident. At the opening of the second, relaxed and happy with Violetta in the country. But then the blow falls, and thereafter, he is distraught to the point of hysteria. It is a full and convincing portrayal.

Keith Latham, too, as Alfredo's father, is galvanised into giving a performance which is full of passion and agitation. Vocally dependable as always, Latham is drawn into the intimate tragedy which centres on Violetta, the luckless courtesan whose one chance of real love is ruthlessly snatched from her.

And at the heart of this production stands the truly wonderful Violetta of Janis Kelly. What an intelligent and accomplished actress she is, both vocally and physically. Verdi would surely have appreciated her performance, for, although her voice is not big and lacks something in bloom, she invests every phrase and gesture with what he valued most - dramatic truth. She was able to make even silences - the pauses in "Sempre libera", for example - truly meaningful.

Of course, this is a gift of a part to the singing actress who can encompass its great dramatic and emotional range. But how many can? Kelly made Violetta's decline, from brittle brilliance in the first act to the haggard, wasted wreck of the last, utterly convincing, both visually and vocally. The opera's end - her death - was as chilling and devastating as it should be. And this was thanks not only to Kelly and Randle, but also to Richard Farnes, under whose direction the orchestra produced an intense and dramatic accompaniment, and to Arden's thoughtful, well-paced, albeit largely traditional, staging.

A production which is visually as economical as this needs quality acting, and it gets it this time. But revivals will need dedicated rehearsals if they are to recreate the necessary intensity demanded by this particular work. And there are still some rough edges to be smoothed out. Alfredo's interruptions to "Sempre libera" are too loud and not distant enough. And it is surely carrying economy too far to have empty glasses at Violetta's opening party. Bring on the sparkling water!

Anthony Arblaster

`La Traviata' is at the Grand Theatre, Leeds until 9 October, and then goes on tour to London (Sadler's Wells), Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham and Hull