Set on a vast slab etched with the words "Violetta Valéry", there is no mistaking the doom-laden atmosphere of David McVicar's handsome new production for Scottish Opera. As they enjoy the high life, the party guests are dancing on the grave of La Traviata herself. The company, having come perilously close to dying, is clearly enjoying its most ambitious shout for some time and this show is all the more welcome for its striking spectacle, attention to period detail and atmospheric characterisation.
Yet, though muted in colour visually – Tanya McCallin's sets are draped in funereal black with an opaque screen allowing glimpses of a bustling existence beyond Violetta's tragically abbreviated one – there are plenty shades of black, white and grey in the psychological complexity of McVicar's interpretation. Emmanuel Joel-Hornak's refined reading of the score produces elegant playing from Scottish Opera's orchestra and from the sturdy bunch of singers that the presently chorus-less company has assembled.
Subtle variations in timbre, a pure sound and lengthy phrasing are there to be appreciated but so, too, is Carmen Giannattasio's taut portrayal of Violetta. Borrowing a few of the minx-like traits of her cigarette-girl namesake, this Violetta is no drooping flower but a thorny fighter against her fatal consumption and all the consequences of her empty life as a Parisian courtesan. Giannattasio inhabits the part with a flinty defiance while communicating her ultimate despair with touching rawness. Rather less happily, Federico Lepre's Alfredo suggests a floppy-haired boy stifled before maturity and repressed emotionally. Wisely, perhaps, McVicar plays to his weaknesses so that at moments of emotional crisis he looks like a ragdoll whose stuffing has been ripped out. Unfortunately, he too often sounds like one. Easy enough on the ear, this Alfredo simply makes insufficient impression to inspire any sort of passion in the listener, far less Violetta.
Richard Zeller could have made the morally authoritative Germont senior a more commanding presence, but his well-rounded baritone is expressive enough. Catriona Barr's faithful maid, Annina, sleeping at her mistress's feet in the final act, adds substance to what – odd though it may seem in the light of a flimsy Alfredo – is a remarkably compelling evening. Theatre – ungimmicky, startling and beautifully nuanced – is what this is and not too much the worse for it.
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