Challenging and enterprising La Traviata at Longborough

Anna Patalong in La Traviata
Anna Patalong in La Traviata

Clive Peacock reviews La Traviata at the Longborough Festival

Longborough’s formidable record of developing the careers of rising stars is legendary. Many will remember Susanna Hurrell’s delicious portrayal of Don Pasquale’s sought-after lover in 2015 and few will ever forget Lee Bisset’s immense performance as Isolde in 2017. 2018 at LFO develops stars backstage as well as on stage with La Traviata’s début director, Daisy Evans, “seeking to portray Violetta in a way that hasn’t been seen before”. She achieved this in spades and has grabbed the opportunity to do so with a last-minute change to the cast as lady luck launched another first-timer, Anna Patalong. Encouraged with the chance to work again with 2016 Dorset Opera Festival colleague, Mark Stone (Giorgio Germont), Anna gives a performance at times fully charged with eroticism and at others full of anguish. Anna’s first night, stepping in after much diary juggling, was a huge triumph. Daisy Evans will have been thrilled to work with an actress and singer with such gifts. Her physical intimacy with an excellent Peter Gijsbertsen, yet another making his début, (Alfredo Germont), and his use of a table cloth will be talked about for years as the inspired interval picnic tables are assembled.

As is now customary, Longborough treats death in its own inimitable way; this season’s Dutchman saw Senta simply stabbing herself mid-stage rather than throwing herself into the sea; and now Violetta no longer drapes her dying frame across a bed, but dies from a drug overdose front stage left in the arms of Alfredo. All very contemporary! Daisy Evans deserves praise for taking a close look at this contemporary life, just as Verdi did in the 1850’s. She capably translates what she found into a no-punches-pulled review of celebrity living. She’s brave, she’s indulgent, she takes risks; however, the true subject of the opera is never lost – the story of a moving, enobling love and its tragic failures.

From the opening bars by the cello desks there was a buzz in the auditorium as Thomas Blunt made a long overdue and welcome return to the pit. He, too, is long remembered for the freshness and piquancy he achieved during the Don Pasquale performances in 2015. Reunited with orchestra leader, Katharine Gittings, Blunt and his team provided the most sympathetic support with, memorably, gorgeous, delicate pizzicato playing in Act 3.

With so many making début, it is pleasing to report the many big successes - none more so than Mark Stone as the caring paterfamilias, Giorgio Germont, happy to sacrifice another woman’s life for his own daughter’s good name. He is outstanding in this unloved role. His confrontation with Violetta and their resulting duet becomes a dramatic moment in which both are chillingly convincing.

Following university studies, Anna Patalong spent time in Italy to brush up her language skills; and it shows, as her reading of the letter in Italian in Act 3 testified. This is just one of the many excellent touches in this production; Daisy Evans keeps faith with the Bush radio so poignantly used in the Dutchman, the Hollywood set scenes constantly ask the audience to reflect on the inadequacies of celebrity life and she remembers the many drawn to Marilyn Monroe by her desperate vulnerability, ending up exploiting it.

This production of La Traviata is one of Longborough’s most challenging, enterprising recent productions; it is profound and intelligent.

* La Traviata runs until July 3. Visit https://lfo.org.uk/opera/la-traviata to book.