Fallen Women: La Traviata by the Welsh National Opera

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As part of the Welsh National Opera’s current season themed around the idea of “Fallen Women”, a series of three shows are being performed this week at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Last night, the season began with Giuseppe Verdi’s famous La Traviata, directed by David McVicar and Sarah Crisp, which will be performed again this Saturday (8th March).

tissot convalescentLike a series of sumptuous Victorian paintings brought startlingly to life, the design of the show was utterly magnificent throughout. From the bustling, brightly coloured party scenes that opened the show’s first and second acts, to the more intimate moments we spend in the company of the frail and saintly Violetta once she is “reformed”, designer Tanya McCallin has realised the period in painstaking detail by mirroring the art and culture of the time. Some of the clearest references are reprinted in the programme, such as James Tissot’s The Convalescent, which provides a near-perfect model for Violetta’s angelic, flowing, white dressing gown in Act Two, which stands in sharp contrast with the black velvet and red taffeta she favours while in Paris. Though not as directly referenced, I was particularly reminded of the classic “fallen women” and rich colours and textures found in Pre-Raphaelite works.

One problem did arise as a result of the production’s elaborate set design: a scene change in the middle of Act 2 saw the curtain come down and the music stop for several minutes, leaving the audience a little restless and confused as to whether the second interval had already started. It was worth the wait for what followed, but I wondered whether the changeover might have been better handled with some sort of explanation to the audience in advance, to stop people from getting up and trying to leave. That said, I’m not familiar enough with opera to know whether or not this is usual.

263px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Proserpine_-_Google_Art_ProjectJi-Min Park carried the audience away completely with his energy, ardour and youthful naiveté as our heroine’s hapless lover Alfredo. Alfredo’s interfering father, Giorgio, is also brilliantly portrayed by Alan Opie, whose powerful presence commands full attention every time he steps onto the stage. His gravitas offsets his son’s foolishness and triviality, yet he is not without his comic moments: he flounders hopelessly when Violetta attempts to “embrace [him] like a daughter”. Gaudily made-up as life and soul of the party Flora, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s knowing humour is surpassed only by that of Act Two’s ingenious gypsy troupe, whose saucy performance offers welcome light relief from the overarching tragic melodrama. Credit here must also go to Andrew George and Colm Seery for their excellent choreography: the gypsy’s dances are timed to perfection. Sian Meinir lends an edge of tough, practical realism to Violetta’s maid Annina, revealing their debts and the sale of her mistress’s possessions to Alfredo in a moment of obvious frustration with his dreamy guilelessness when it crosses the line into downright stupidity. Naturally, though, Violetta herself must be the star of this show, and Linda Richardson only gets better as things develop. Perhaps her most beautiful singing is alongside Alan Opie’s when Giorgio arrives in Act Two, but it’s after this that the audience really begins feel her anguish over the “great sacrifice” he asks of her as the show builds up towards its tear-jerking ending.

It’s testament to their skills that however infuriating modern viewers might find this story, the performers still manage to sweep us all up along with them, stirring emotional responses that we hardly expect and making us really care about the characters almost in spite of ourselves. Still, as the programme’s fascinating articles by an impressive array of novelists, playwrights and feminist essayists suggests, the WNO does not wish for us to ignore our more rational reactions to La Traviata‘s problematic plot. As David Pountney, the WNO’s Chief Executive and Artistic Director, writes in his introduction:

“[Fallen women] is…. a controversial theme, and I hope that bringing these three works together will provoke you to question the assumptions that lie behind them – perhaps even make some of you angry – an entirely healthy reaction to important cultural ideas.”

It cannot be by accident, then, that the voices of this production’s female characters are allowed to speak loudest, even if we are not left entirely convinced by Violetta’s self-sacrifice or, indeed, by her attraction to Alfredo, who is undoubtedly punching above his weight in both wisdom and capacity for compassion. Unlike our Victorian predecessors, force-fed a phobia of “fallen” females, we cannot readily accept Violetta’s miserable death as only due punishment for her “sins” – rather, we are left wondering how the more selfish and silly men we blame for her demise can possibly atone for theirs. If their changeability and inconstancy (interestingly stereotypically “feminine” qualities) so far are anything to judge by, it’s a struggle to believe that the guilt they feel when we leave them will really plague them for long enough to be considered sufficient penance.

What’s important, then, is that though Violetta is effectively silenced – her spirit being the first to fly the stage – the curtain comes down before those that survive her can say or do anything to appropriate or moralise her suffering. When it goes back up again, it’s her and her alone we see at first, not only allowing Richardson to take well-deserved credit for her performance, but also ensuring that Violetta retains her own integrity.

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With its Violetta left exhausted, sweating and sickly (rather than prettily pale and waiflike in line with the bizarre, deathly standards of beauty that proliferated in the 19th century) and still battling on to the end, the WNO ensures that the tragic courtesan character transcends her role of simply “feeding and satisfying” male fantasy, instead confronting us with the reality of her existence (Violetta is, after all, based on a real woman, Marie Duplessis): that, in David Pountney’s words “is where the poignancy comes in”.

The Welsh National Opera’s La Traviata is showing again at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 8th March. Full tour dates can be found here. It is followed at the Hippodrome by Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut this evening and Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude tomorrow night. Keep an eye on Tal Fox’s blog, If You Could See This Now, for a review of Boulevard Solitude, and if you are aged 16-23 and using the Hippodrome’s First Night scheme to get tickets for the opera, don’t forget to let us know here.

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New Season Launch – Autumn and Winter at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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After the fabulous free theatre we’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks across Birmingham’s city centre, the summer may finally be over, but the fun is far from it! The Birmingham Hippodrome has just announced a new season packed full of all sorts of exciting shows to brighten up the cold, dark winter days!

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18389_sFrom October through to Spring next year, you’ll be able to enjoy a range of smash-hit musicals, National Theatre shows on tour, contemporary dance, world-class opera and ballet from the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Welsh National Opera, and of course, the return of the world’s biggest pantomime this Christmas.

The new season kicks off next month with the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café, E=MC² and Tombeaux (3-5 October) and later The Sleeping Beauty, (8-12 October) followed by the National Theatre’s War Horse (16 October – 9 November). If you want to get yourself some War Horse tickets, act fast, since the show is almost sold out already!

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Alongside the War Horse run, two additional special events will be taking place: Only Remembered (Friday 8th November), a concert featuring live readings from the original War Horse novel by its author Michael Morpurgo and music from John Tams and Barry Coope, and a War Horse-themed sleepover (Friday 25th October) that will see the Patrick Centre transformed into World War I-style trenches.

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Towards the end of the month, there will be more opportunities to experience free outdoor shows in Birmingham. Make sure you wrap up warm for Illuminate! (25-27 October) a three-day light spectacular featuring interactive street projections from Shanghai, dance performances and The Lanterns of Terracotta Warriors, an extraordinary exhibition originally created for the Beijing Olympics.

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Throughout November, the Welsh National Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (12 & 16 November) and Gaetano Donizetti’s new Tudors series: Anna Bolena (13 November), Maria Stuarda (14 November) and Roberto Devereux (15 November). 

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As Christmas approaches, the Hippodrome will be helping you to get into the festive spirit with a Birmingham Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (22 November – 12 December), as well as its excellent, all-star pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (19 December – 2 February). This year’s panto will star Gok Wan, Stephanie Beacham, Gary Wilmot, John Partridge and winner of the BBC’s Over the Rainbow series Danielle Hope.

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February is a great month to catch some ballet at the Hippodrome, with two more productions from the Birmingham Royal Ballet (Three of a Kind from 19-22 February and The Prince of the Pagodas from 25 February – 1 March), as well as Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (5-15 February).

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Meanwhile, March is the month for music, with three WNO operas and two exciting musicals.  The Welsh National Opera will present Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (4 & 8 March) as well as two brand new productions, Manon Lescaut (5 & 7 March) and Boulevard Solitude (6 March). From 11-15 March, award-winning producers Music & Lyrics will be presenting their take on Fiddler on the Roof, starring Paul Michael Glaser and, towards the end of the month, the theatre’s stage will be flooded with 12,000 litres of water every night as part of its Singin’ in the Rain performances (18 March – 5 April), starring Maxwell Caulfield and Faye Tozer.

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In April, Wet, Wet, Wet frontman Marti Pellow will star in Evita (8-19 April), while a brand new musical based on the classic TV series Happy Days will star Sugababes’ Heidi Range (22-26 April). The Happy Days musical is written by the series’ creator Gary Marshall, with creative consultancy from Henry Winkler, TV’s original “Fonz”.

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May sees the return of the biennial International Dance Fest Birmingham, co-produced by the Hippodrome and DanceXchange. The festival will kick off with Sideways Rain (29-30 April) by Genevan contemporary dance company Alias, and will also include Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s M!longa  (23-24 May), international hip-hop festival Breakin’ Convention (20-21 May), a new adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies by Matthew Bourne (14-17 May) and a performance from acclaimed ballerina Sylvie Guillem in 6,000 Miles Away (6-7 May). Bourne’s new production will feature young New Adventures dancers from the West Midlands as part of efforts to inspire a new generation to get involved in dance. 

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As Spring leads on into summer, the National Theatre‘s five-star comedy feast, One Man, Two Guv’nors will arrive in Birmingham (26-31 May), providing an excellent opportunity to catch this highly-praised production if you missed it in London. One Man, Two Guv’nors is an adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s classic 1743 comedy The Servant of Two Masters, reimagined in 1960s Brighton by Richard Bean.

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So it comes full circle back to summer. Next summer’s big musical show will be Wicked (9 July – 6 September). It may seem a long way to plan ahead, but tickets for Wicked are already being snapped up by audiences. In September, the Hippodrome will also be showing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Check back here for details about when tickets go on sale.

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To book tickets and for more information, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Happy watching!