Brendan James (The Review Hub), August 2019 ★★★★
Everything about Verdi’s La traviata appears to demand the full ‘operatic’ treatment. An incredibly rich score, both orchestrally and chorally. An epic love story that spans early flutterings of attraction to love then despair. Life, death, love, joy, everything that says, this is not an opera that can be pared back, modernised and performed in a book shop with no conductor, one piano and a cast of seven. This defiance of expectation seems to be exactly what drives Opera on Location to undertake their projects. Formed in 2013, Opera on Location have quickly established themselves as one of the most creative and imaginative young opera companies working today and ensure that the Sheffield arts scene will always have an opera for any occasion.
Director Ashley Pearson has taken La traviata to its core then crafted an entirely new libretto which is modern and, at times, hilarious without betraying the original story. Verdi himself specified that he would prefer that La Traviata was to be performed in a contemporary setting and in this production they haven’t wasted a beat in making La traviata current and urgent. The opera runs at a comfortable 2 hours 15 minutes which speaks for the economy of this new libretto. Opera on Location always perform in English so the text is accessible (and delivered with sparkling clarity). Opera on Location, as the name implies, bring their productions to exciting and unorthodox locations and this production has been set in a local branch of Waterstones. An ingenious touch in this new libretto sees Alfredo (traditionally a young man from a provincial family) as a hot young author bursting onto the sci-fi scene. This places Violetta as his cosplay fantasy woman, turning every head at his book launch.
Sci-fi and humour notwithstanding, La traviata is a tragic love story, and at the centre of the company we have Rachel Abbott as Violetta and Opera on Location co-founder Gareth Lloyd as Alfredo. Both do well to observe Verdi’s demanding dynamics in a space that, while generous for sound quality, was not built for opera. Both enjoy moments of vocal brilliance and are vocally well-matched. Abbott takes Violetta in a more modest and coy vein than perhaps anticipated but in Act One during È strano!…Ah, fors’è lui she finds a real burst of physical and vocal freedom. Greg Hoyt gives a generous and sophisticated performance as George Germont. Christopher Littlewood delivers perfectly pitched comedic moments as well as crystal clear vocals. Chloe Saywell is the unsung hero of the cast, performing with intriguing subtlety and exquisite singing.
Pearson has taken great risks with this production and that bravery has paid off. The dramatic staircase in the book shop makes for an impressive piece of staging, though sadly in the second half it did mean some slightly awkward movement and the placement of certain characters did affect the balance in the final harmonies. The contemporary setting, as well as the English translation, makes this an incredibly welcoming and unique opera experience. Ideal for young or first-time opera visitors.
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