Flower Power: La Traviata up close at the King’s Head

Sunday 17th November 2013, matinée

What is it about Alexandre Dumas’ novel ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’ that holds such fascination more than a century after it was written?  The number of adaptations in theatre, film and dance are testament to a story that seems as modern as ever, even in very different social times.  The answer, we feel, having been to see Operaupclose’s production of Verdi’s opera ‘La Traviata’ at the King’s Head, seems to be that it is a very simple and personal story.  We recall seeing ‘Marguerite’, Boubil and Schonberg’s musical adaptation set in the second world war, and feeling that it didn’t quite work, and perhaps in that case it was because the complex political situation unbalanced the personal relationships.  So it was refreshing to see a version which seemed to allow the power of the original to come through.

We are sure Verdi would be very pleased to see the play updated to 1920s.  The opera house which first produced his work insisted that the action be set even further back in the past due to the shocking subject matter, only relenting decades later.  Violetta is a courtesan who is ‘kept’ by the Baron (in this version a gangster).  At a party, she meets Alfredo, a shy young man who insists that she deserves better and persuades her to see him again even though she protests she doesn’t love him.  Cut to act two, with the two of them living an idyllic existence in the country, which is shattered when Alfredo’s father, a prominent politician, comes to ask Violetta to give up Alfredo for the sake of his sister, who cannot marry her fiance because the scandal of their association is too great.  Courageously she agrees, and manages to convince Alfredo that she no longer loves him.  Suffering from tuberculosis, she declines rapidly – when Alfredo learns the truth, will he get to her in time for a reconciliation?  We need hardly describe the plot any further.  It’s an opera after all.

One of the great advantages of seeing opera at the King’s Head is the opportunity to experience the drama at close hand.  The performers cannot rely on the power of their voices alone – we can see every expression on their faces, something which a large opera house makes impossible.  As Alfredo, Philip Lee captures the naivety and awkwardness of youth, a young man who is willing to make a fool of himself for love, which turns out to be winning strategy with the jaded Violetta.  With a sweet and melodious voice, never better than in the duet where he convinces her that they understand each other and ‘understanding is close to love’.  An operaupclose regular, he previously played Rodolfo in La Boehme – he’s obviously cornered the market as a ‘love Jonah’.  Before the show started we were warned that the casting of Alfredo’s father Germont was a little younger than might be expected, but even this did not prepare us for the baby-faced Christopher Jacklin.  All we can say is, Germont must have had a painting hidden in the attic.  Joking aside, Jacklin’s vocal talents more than made up for the Benjamin Button-esque casting with a rich baritone voice which easily convinced as a caring father who was nevertheless accustomed to getting his own way.  His emotional journey from moral superiority to deep regret as he realises the consequences of his actions is touching.  As Violetta, Prudence Sanders is exceptional, giving us a sympathetic and fully rounded character, whose inner strength shines out in the most tragic circumstances.  The grace with which she is prepared to sacrifice her own love for the sake of others is the moral and emotional centre of the play and Sanders conveys it with great lucidity.  Her vocal performance more than matches her acting, by turns thrillingly powerful and warmly tender.

Recently we wrote about actors pay and wished that there was more transparency from the fringe.  Ever the innovator, Adam Spreadbury-Maher has taken the bull by the horns and declared the King’s Head an exploitation-free zone, by publicly committing to pay all performers and stage managers equity approved rates.

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