Music reviews: Scottish Opera: La traviata | SCO: Elijah

It’s good to see that David McVicar’s probing production of La traviata still has its mojo, writes Ken Walton

Scottish Opera: La traviata, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****

SCO: Elijah, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

Peppered throughout Scottish Opera’s history are stand-out productions that have warranted repeated revival. Champion of them all, Anthony Besch’s Tosca, was still going strong 40 years after its 1980 premiere. Who knows if Sir David McVicar’s 2008 La traviata will equal that, but for now, based on its latest reincarnation, this Verdi remains a keeper.

Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta Valéry and Phillip Rhodes as Giorgio Germont in Scottish Opera's production of La traviata. PIC: James GlossopHye-Youn Lee as Violetta Valéry and Phillip Rhodes as Giorgio Germont in Scottish Opera's production of La traviata. PIC: James Glossop
Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta Valéry and Phillip Rhodes as Giorgio Germont in Scottish Opera's production of La traviata. PIC: James Glossop

McVicar was present on opening night, the curatorship of this revival now assigned to Italian stage director Leo Castaldi. Within the opulent sobriety of Tanya McCallin’s original designs – hauntingly vast and dark, voluminous swirling black drapes just enough to soften the pervasive gloom foreshadowing Violetta’s ultimate fate – Castaldi has stuck to McVicar’s winning formula of character focus titillated by calculated whiffs of colour and smatterings of sauce. The orgiastic Act 2 choreography of the gypsies and bullfighters, by its sheer physicality and suggestiveness, drags us momentarily out of the psychological mire – a welcome respite.

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But there’s no escaping Violetta’s downward trajectory, the set’s flooring permanently etched as her tombstone will soon be. Hye-Youn Lee’s magnetic portrayal reflects that knowingness, liberated by her genuine love for Alfredo yet trapped by her dubious courtesan past.

Just occasionally there’s call for reflective purity in her vocal delivery, but in the signature numbers she embraces the full, heartrending welter of Verdi’s coloratura demands. As Alfredo, Ji-Min Park emerges as a forceful match, passionately naive, capturing over time his character’s awakening journey.

Around them are a cast that know their place: Phillip Rhodes neatly-tempered as Alfredo’s self-protecting father; Nicholas Lester as the supercilious Barone Douphol; Monwabisi Lindi’s excitable Gastone; Heather Ireson and Lea Shaw respectively as Violetta’s devoted maid Annina and her flighty friend Flora. The chorus thrills with massed potency and restless theatrical detail.

The SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben ParisThe SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben Paris
The SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben Paris

From the outset the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, under music director Stuart Stratford, embrace this collective vision. There’s something instantly telling in the opening bars – an unfussy truthfulness and expressive depth, void of sentimentality – that persists as a powerful underscore to the ensuing drama. Good to see this probing Verdi production still has its mojo.

Elijah is frequently referred to as the opera Mendelssohn never wrote, something Opéra de Lyon set out to prove last year in a novelty staged production. It is, of course, an oratorio and perfectly complete as it was intended, a self-sufficient concert piece recounting the action-movie antics of the zealous Old Testament prophet Elijah and his quest to re-convert the idolaters of Baal through a series of miracles, earthquakes and fire.

It’s what the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with SCO Chorus and soloists, chose as a triumphant Usher Hall finale to its 50th Anniversary season. And what need of costumes and sets when this evocative music, under the probing and dynamically-charged lead of chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, and with such an immersive team of soloists, speaks so affectingly for itself?

It was the seamless fluidity of this performance – the soloists walking on and off centre stage as required – that determined its overwhelming impact. From Roderick Williams’ arresting opening pronouncement as Elijah the fugal Overture emerged with electrifying precision, the Chorus establishing itself with chilling clarity and unanimity, beyond which two-and-a half exhilarating hours passed in a flash.

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Williams sang a nuanced Elijah, teasingly pensive. The female trio – sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Rowan Pierce with Anna Stéphany’s rich-grained mezzo soprano – were a tour de force, separately and in ensemble, though having Pierce sing the part of the Youth, normally taken by an actual youth, was strangely incongruous. Tenor Thomas Walker established himself early on with a transcendent “If with all your hearts”.

The orchestra and chorus proved phenomenal throughout, the latter’s biting tuttis as impressive as its angelic semi-chorus, the SCO unearthing treasured detail rarely encountered in Elijah. As for Emelyanychev, there’s barely anything he touches these days that doesn’t turn to gold.

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