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Open-air robbery set to good music

A review of La Traviata on 22 February 2003 at Spier

Roshan Sewpersad


Henry James wrote about the 1876 American version of Alexandre Dumas the Younger’s play La Dame aux Camelias, on which La Traviata is based:

It is all champagne and tears — fresh perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain. We have seen the play both well done and ill done — in strange places, in barbarous tongues. But nothing makes any difference — it carries with it an April air: some tender young man and some coughing young woman have only to speak the lines to give it a great place among the love stories of the world.

Cape Town’s current version of the famous Verdi opera at Spier falls, at final curtain, amongst those ill-done versions. “Unpretty” about sums it up. Designer Michael Mitchell and director Paul Stern should not count this production as one of their better works — not that I can remember seeing any of their others.

If it was the designer’s intention to “unprettify” the experience (and not in a post-modern way), lighting, sets and costumes conspired to rob the production of what could have been a few memorable moments — for at least a day afterwards.

The design did nothing to enhance the brave vocal performances of the cast, which includes Angela Gilbert as Violetta and Jannie Moolman as Alfredo. Noteworthy voices, ably supported by The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, include Thomasz Kaluzny as Giorgio Germont, and Phumeza Matshikiza as Annina. The chorus also deserves recognition for producing a marvellous sound; one bass was particularly good.

Returning to the design and direction (after all, an opera is a theatrical performance and the vocal performances cannot be isolated): not everything was bad, but only in isolation. Unfortunately an opera is not the sum of its parts.

In this production of La Traviata, which Verdi originally set in Paris in the late 1840s, there is an uncomfortable clash of modern and period costumes, a mish-mash of S&M and what was left at the bottom of a dress-up box. The S&M and body-revealing “modern” costumes do bring the sexual element of the story to the fore, further emphasised by a well-meaning but semi-ill-designed dance scene, courtesy of Free Flight Dance Company and Cape Town City Ballet. However, they do not sustain the opera’s own sexual symbols, which seem to have been missed. The opera is somewhat ill-designed, because the scene works well in isolation, but the vivacity and lusty energy of the dancers are not apparent in the rest.

Perhaps this is due, in part, to a retractable, heart-shaped bed-cum-wedding cake that garishly dominates the stage, clashing with costumes and make-up and which, generally, is pretty ugly. One bad costume decision in particular was to dress the pale Jannie Moolman in virginal white, in a waistcoat that draws too much attention to his ample rear.

This oversight resulted in the audience’s focus being directed to somewhere below his vocal cords. The harsh light did no favours to his complexion either: Violetta is the one racked with consumption, but one wishes that the doctor administered the streptomycin to Mr Moolman instead.

Stage direction did not take into account the seating layout of the Spier amphitheatre. The audience, an integral component of any theatrical performance, seems to have been neglected. Theatre-goers on the flanks had to content themselves with watching the backs of the cast, who were concentrated centre-stage. In short: the stage should have been better used.

By the end of the evening one felt robbed of a good experience. The voices are more than adequate; unfortunately the rest of the production did not sustain this.

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