Abridged version of Verdi’s La traviata, devised & produced by Alison Thorman [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]
Violetta – Loretta Hopkins
Alfredo – Ben Leonard
The Mother – Alison Thorman
Simon Howat (piano); conducted by William Green
Martin Berry – Original Staging
Ashley Pearson – Revival Director
Matthew Swithinbank – Lighting
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 29 July, 2019
Venue: Studio 2, Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London Borough of Hackney
Grimeborn Opera launches its summer season with Alison Thorman’s Violetta, her reduction of Verdi’s La traviata, which also marked Opera Allegra’s debut at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It runs for ninety minutes straight through, and gives the two leads the chance to showcase their talents in familiar numbers. Reverting to Verdi’s first title, the abridgment reminds that the smaller roles are there mainly to put Violetta into context as a kept/bought woman and to keep you waiting for the big arias – and it also assumes the audience’s familiarity with the original.
However, the abridgment isn’t so fierce that there isn’t space for a couple of directorial adjustments (presumably from Thorman). The first/lesser one is the use of Erik Satie’s erotic song ‘Je te veux’ (I desire you) as a prelude to Verdi’s Prelude, a tender waltz about the plaisirs et chagrins d’amour. The second/much bigger one changes the role of Alfredo’s father Giorgio to Alfredo’s mother, which carries any number of implications to do with Alfredo’s upbringing, alongside Mère Germont’s pragmatic appraisal about her son’s unsuitable attachment. Thorman, looking like a figure out of a Seurat painting, plays her as a matriarch used to getting her own way, while incidentally pointing out that emotional blackmail transcends gender boundaries. Violetta and the Mother’s duet in the Satie also implies a slant of feminist solidarity, even though the original usually trumpets it loud and proud.
It looks as though the team at the Arcola’s small Studio 2 is the same as for the Edinburgh premiere, and if Thorman was responsible for the casting, she has done well by Loretta Hopkins and Ben Leonard. Hopkins perhaps overdoes the coquettishness in her first meeting with Alfredo, but her sumptuous, solid soprano fills the space, her coloratura is agile and expressive, she looks good in her various quick-change nineteenth-century costumes, and she stripped her character bare in the scene with Mother, Thorman imposing her will in a finely managed Provence song. Ben Leonard (in the process of changing his professional name to Ben Smith) has a ringing Italianate tenor of considerable power and ardour, he is usefully personable, and his acting gets straight to the passionate point.
Simon Howat’s fluency at the piano is impressively stylish and suits the space, William Green’s adroit conducting makes the reduction seem almost spacious, and Martin Berry’s staging (basically a chaise-longue) successfully creates its own terms.