The setting for this, one of the first operas composed in 1643, originally set around the year 58 AD with detail on the life of Roman Emperor Nero, was, what appeared to be, a 1950’s mafia HQ. If this was The Godfather II, then Nero (Nerone in this opera) was Michael Corleone, and the poet and philosopher Seneca, was Councillor Tom Hagan. Ruthless, and with too much power for any one person, murder is afoot: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is nothing to suggest in Godfather II, however, that Michael cheats on his wife; or indeed that Michael cheats on his wife and murders her in order to be with the mistress. There, the narrative comparison ends perhaps.
However, we do witness the speculations and interventions of the gods of Fortune, Virtue and Love. These facets of human nature were the stuff of the Godfather Trilogy. In these films, spiritual reasoning and censure came in the human form of Christian priests. The opera opens with Cupid, the god of Love, setting out to prove that in the affairs of mortals, Love is always triumphant. This near modern, 1950’s setting was extremely effective in bringing the drama closer to the contemporary audience. Anything else might have divorced the drama from familiarity. Through this setting – most of the action took place in what seemed to be a sort of warehouse – the sense of statehood that comes across through many mafia-based dramas was a strong linkage with Roman autocracy.
The music was, in its delicacy and finesse, a stark contrast to the brutality of some of the more severe dramatic events; and this was a historically informed performance. This means that the instruments accompanying the singing were very old in design. The ensemble, which physically bookended the drama on the stage, consisted of two violins, two lute-like instruments called Theorbos (these are like multi-stringed, very large guitars), a Gamba/Lirone which is a like a cello, a harp and two harpsichords. The ensemble was led, or directed by the bodily movements of one of the harpsichordists: Laurence Cummings.
An extremely effective musical device used by Monteverdi (along with the rest of the composers of this work, for there were more than one) is a repeated vocal discordance as a form of word-painting on those words sung which express lust. The note is repeated by the singer on an important syllable of a word indicating passion of some sort and the note itself sounds out of place with the rest of the music being played. It resolves itself back into the music after word has been sung. The impression made is one of a desire bursting forth without being quenched by its objective (I expect most of us a familiar with this feeling).
Two of the cast, James Laing (Nerone) and Ottone (Christopher Ainslie), were countertenors. This voice type is that of a male tenor singing in the falsely high part of the voice. Originally, these roles would have been sung by the voice type, castrato: the voice of a man who has been castrated before puberty. For obvious reasons this is no longer done. The role of Nerone is that of a murderous psychopath, so the sweetness of the countertenor voice contrasted starkly with the character’s ambitious villainy. This contrast was extremely irksome with the result that an ironic harshness was the abiding memory of this character. James Laing’s vocal performance was immaculate and quite forceful, despite the dulcet nature of the voice. He convinced of one spoilt by power, avarice and cynicism. His love for Poppea came across as the lustful infatuation of a youth.
Sandra Piques Eddy’s Poppea convinced of dewy-eyed ambition coupled with, again, a youthful infatuation. In this amorality story – the wrong-doers succeed in achieving their goal – she was a dramatic model of manipulative conniving. Vocally she was very impressive, with a strong and well controlled velvet darkness to the voice. Seneca (James Creswell) spoke with measure vocally and dramatically of the stoicism to which he subscribed: a rich and expansive profundity was the impression. A moment of comic relief was delivered with great verve by Fiona Kimm in the role of Arnalta (nurse of Poppea). Special mention must also be made of the gods, without which this story might have made little continuous sense.
An overwhelming sense of inevitable tragedy was the abiding memory of Opera North’s La Traviata. It is the story of Violetta, a courtesan whom we observe is enjoying the Parisian high-life. She falls in love, but, owing to the consequences of her past life, what is apparently her only chance of real love is sacrificed. The music is by Verdi; and this is his most popular opera. His musical style changed ever so slightly over his life, but there is no mistaking it. The course of the music is not continuous and flowing, but proceeds in a punctuated way: very much musical number by musical number. We might have a chorus number, then an aria, or song; it might be for one person, or a duet, or for several of the principal singers, and perhaps sometimes with the chorus included.
The orchestral accompaniment to Verdi’s arias and choruses is highly distinctive, because it is very ‘um-cha’, or ‘um-cha-cha’. This might be called a regulated, bass-treble antiphony. The ‘um’ is the low down in pitch (bass) and ‘cha’ is higher in pitch (treble). The result of this method is highly effective in conveying drama in a highly stylised way. It sounds almost jolly, or dance-like at times; at other times, it can sound somewhat militaristic. As a stylistic method it is so powerful because the principal singer, singers or chorus, might be expressing negative emotion, while the accompaniment and overall sense of the music sounds positive. The result is an almost disturbing sense of irony. There is some detachment that we feel, while being at the same time very much engaged by it. The audience can therefore get the feeling that they are observers in the dance of life. Another musical thing that Verdi does is to change the overall musical feel, whether positive or negative (or major or minor) to the opposite of that without warning. All of this transmits the drama with grace.
The setting, or historical context of this production is Belle Epoque Paris. The chorus display debauched behaviour: it is all partying and hedonism. During the overture, which is a piece of music for the orchestra before the singing begins, the audience were given the view of the stage with a large circular screen placed centrally in it. This screen received video projections. At first the projection was a microscopic lens view of the tuberculosis that it would transpire afflicted our heroine. Following this view came an endoscopic one: actual lung tissue was on display. During these medical-themed projection, our Violetta posed with statuesque elegance below the screen in silhouette. We were therefore presented with Violetta’s beauty juxtaposed with a warts-and-all view of her health. This was a strong indication that the gender stereotyping of a courtesan was an injustice that would not be ignored. As much was confirmed by the detail of on the advertising campaign posters for this production. Words such as ‘Temptress’, ‘Victim’ and ‘Saint’ appeared beneath a picture of of heroine on these posters.
When Violetta played the hostess at the debauched Parisian parties in Act I of the opera, the night sky was the projection shown in the circular screen. At another time, the moon was the circular projection, with all its cross-cultural feminine associations. When Violetta hears the expression of love for her by the character, Alfredo Germont, she recollects her former innocence and allows herself the possibility that she might fall in love – here the circular disc reflects her mood and turns a pure white. In Act I, scene 1, no disc is to be found. The backdrop is a bright blue sky: she is in peaceful partnership with her lover. Act II, scene two, sees matters turn for the worse and a large-scale clock face in the background indicates the sense of fated inevitability about the oncoming tragedy. In Act III,the circular screen returns. It seemed that the circular projector screen appeared in those portions of Violetta’s story when she is, in the eyes of the men in her life, a reflection of thir ideas about her. Only during the brief peaceful partnership with Alfredo was she seen for who she was. Such was confirmed by the hauntingly ironic, slow-motion applause of masked revellers afetr her death, indicating that her life had been a performance.
How was this so convincingly achieved? Hye-Youn Lee was cast in the role of Violetta and convinced of the whole and entire, multi-faceted woman. Her voice conveyed a dark warmth and was controlled with excellent measure and grace. An impression of ease was made during even the most demanding of complex musical passages. Opposite her, in the role of Alfredo Germont, was Ji-Min Park. At first glance, he appeared not to transmit the charisma that one might expect necessary to woo our Violetta. However, the character of Alfredo Germont is one detached from the debauchery of the high-life with emotional depth: a caring character, for which Park was well cast. One of the highlights of the opera was the finale to Act II. Park’s portrayal of guilt here was heartfelt and highly impressive. Roland Wood was in the role of Giorgio Germont. An extremely rich voice coupled with measured dramatic performance convinced of the authoritative patrician confined by financial circumstance and respectability. The chorus and orchestra were, as usual at Opera North, impeccable, expressive and extremely tightly kept.