I don’t know about you, but I am a great fan of fallen women.
French and Italian and Spanish – and probably all Romance languages – are full of delights. The famous composer Giuseppe Verdi would probably not have gained access to the Devonport Little Theatre let alone Milan’s La Scala if he knocked on the door and said
- Hi there – I am Joe Green
When Alexandre Dumas wrote his play La Dame aux Camélias in 1848 and steered its premiere a few years later he probably did not know that a thirty-nine-year-old Italian composer was in the audience. Just a year later Giuseppe Verdi – good old Joe Green – launched his version of this tale of fallen women, prostitutes, tuberculosis, family honour and death-smitten love in La Traviata – the fallen woman.
And I am a great fan of these fallen women.
The story line behind so many operas is pretty absurd. Consider the bare bones of this one:
- Bloke goes to a brothel and falls in love with one of the sex workers
- Bloke and girl hide out in rural love nest
- Poppa turns up and says Nope! Never gonna happen!
- Girl goes back to the party life … bloke turns up … big fight
- Girl dies
Unfortunately, the girl almost always dies in opera. Butterfly commits seppuku in Madama Butterfly, Tosca jumps off the battlements in the opera of the same name, and of course Juliette does not have a very rosy future in any version of this tale. Gilda is stabbed to death in Rigoletto and Desdemona is strangled in Otello. Nedda in Pagliacci also comes unstuck at the end of a sharp knife in her husband’s hand: did he confuse the Christmas turkey for his wife?
This is one reason why children should never be taken to the opera house.
Another reason is that the children may demand a toilet break at the most inopportune moment just as the knife / sword / pistol is about to bring the drama to a climactic close.
Tears and cheers
It is hard to cheer at the end of some operas as the leading lady is lying in a pool of blood and as the audience is mopping up its tears – but cheer we do as the soprano struggles back to her feet and accepts the bouquets of camellias tossed at her feet by admiring fans.
I think my first experience of travelling to see La Traviata was in 1994 when Opera Australia presented Elijah Moshinsky’s stunning production in Melbourne. An 1979 Sydney performance was one where my namesake, dancer Christopher Hall, performed in an unscheduled performance of La Traviata given in the Opera Theatre, Sydney, in place of a performance of Idomeneo which had been cancelled because of illness (1), but I did not see him or it.
1994 – 2022
Fast forward my travels from 1994 until we get to New Orleans, home of jazz. I travelled to this dynamic and exciting city in February 2001 – a few years before Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc in 2005.
When visiting this creole hotspot what does one do?
Why – go to a performance of an Italian opera of course.
The New Orleans production of Traviata was being presented at the Jefferson Performing Arts Centre, which turned out to be at the Jefferson Junior High School, a school of about 600 kids and offering advanced studies in many areas. It is conveniently located equidistant between two Walmart Supercenters … but many miles from the nearest taxi rank.
JJHS’s website offers greetings to visitors in Arabic, French and Vietnamese. It claims to be the largest and most diverse school in Louisiana and when I went there to enjoy Traviata, the matrons at the auditorium door simply said to me (in English):
- Sit wherever you like, dear
… and enjoy your cup of tea and biscuits – quite complimentary!
The orchestra leaned over the railing of the pit to chat to friends and patrons in the front few rows. The audience sat on folding wooden chairs and chatted to each other happily throughout the show.
- She’s got a nice voice, didn’t she?
- What? What did you say?
- I said she got a good voice
- Oh – I thought you said …
It was not an evening to be remembered fondly … and I have no photographs of the gala, but I do have dread memories of trying to get a taxi back to town from the depths of rural New Orleans. Bill, my friend who had stayed in NYO, had had to put up with a nothing more exciting than a black marche funèbre with high-steppin’, trumpet-tootin’, high-hatted jazz musicians leading a coffin on its final pathway.
Violetta? Ho hum indeed. Not a tootin’ trumpet in sight.
Prague and Chicago
I was in Prague in 2006 and thrilled to find a performance of Traviata at the gilded and red-velveted Národní Divadlo, the National Theatre, built in 1868 but destroyed by fire in 1881 and subsequently restored.
My second balcony centre seat (550 Czech Koruny or about AU$35.00) offered a great view of the stage but it was a pity the performance was rather mediocre. The only good bit was the presence on stage in Act I of a couple of bare breasted women in Violetta’s brothel. For some reason I still have my ticket to this performance – but not any photographs of the bare-breasted courtesans.
There weren’t too many bare breasts in Chicago in September 2018, when I chanced upon a Traviata rehearsal by Chicago Lyric Opera performers preparing for an evening concert in the wonderful Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Although the weather was fine, it was still probably too cool for breasts to be bared at the rehearsal … or at any time, perhaps.
And so to Sydney …
The Sydney Opera House really is one of the grandest modern theatre buildings in the world.
It is built on a chunk of land jutting into Sydney Harbour and what is traditionally known as the Tubowgule land of Australia’s First Nations Gadigal clan.
Following an international design competition, the then NSW Premier announced in 1957 that the winner of the competition was Jørn Utzon, a thirty-eight-year-old Danish architect. Construction began two years later, and the building opened in 1973, about fifty years before I travelled there to see Traviata.
Pritzker Prize judge Frank Gehry said when awarding architecture’s highest award to the Opera House’s architect in 2003:
- Utzon made a building well ahead of its time, far ahead of available technology… a building that changed the image of an entire country (2)
The Opera House’s sails remind people of slices of oranges dropped onto a casual breakfast plate, but they shelter two drama theatres, a magnificent concert hall seating almost 3000 people, lots of bars and restaurants, and the staggeringly ugly Joan Sutherland opera theatre, cringing beneath the second largest sail of the building.
I did not enjoy the Prague performance of Traviata, but the Czech theatre was splendid: gilt and red velvet and belle époque styling and intimate. In contrast, Joan’s theatre is dominated by brutal black slabs of concrete. The space is not joyous, but the ugly slabs do encircle comfortable pale-timbered seats upholstered in a rich red fabric … and every seat enjoys an unparalleled view of the stage.
It’s not a pretty theatre, but once the overture starts and the house lights dim … who cares if there aren’t any gilded columns or velvet banquettes?
I do not remember the names of the performers or conductor at my 1994 Traviata début, but I do remember the lavish settings and costumes, all of which were faithfully reproduced in the 2022 Sydney Opera House production under the baton of Tahu Mathewson and with Revival Director Warwick Doddrell. Violetta was sung by Irina Lungi and Alfredo by Ji-Min Park.
At this performance of Traviata I sat next to a woman from Western Australia, who had travelled to Sydney to see the production because – apparently – Traviata features in the Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman.
During the intervals and scene changes she asked me about the role of the conductor and why there was no woman – a loving mother perhaps – to give Alfredo some life lessons. It was refreshing to chat to someone who knew even less about grand opera than I did, and she told me that it was okay to weep and sob at times during the show (I told her I had hay fever). After the final curtain call, I asked her if she had enjoyed her first opera outing:
- Oh yes! I am going to visit the Chinese Gardens tomorrow …
I was not sure if this was a wonderful non sequitur or an honest response – yes – I love the opera and I also love gardens and rocky road chocolates …
Revelling in your emotions is, I feel, a fundamental part of travelling to become part of the music and theatre and drama of an evening at the opera wherever it is presented – in Melbourne or Prague or New Orleans or Sydney.
I am looking forward to travelling underground later this month for an evening of opera in a reservoir. (3)
Sing it high … sing it low … but sing it!
- Australian Live Performance Database www.austage.edu/pages/event/134470
Journeys 1994 – 2022
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall October 2022
Photographs marked with an asterisk * are borrowed from Internet
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship
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Wonder where you will see it next?