For all the talk about opera dying, there’s a surprising amount of it in Melbourne these days: from the adventurous Victorian Opera’s ongoing success and Melbourne Opera stepping up to the next level with Wagner at the Regent, to grassroots BK Opera.
This fledgling company’s latest offering is Verdi’s La Traviata, presented in a North Fitzroy community hall according to their mission statement: “No sets. No props. No microphones.” Given how prohibitively expensive opera usually is to mount, this self-described “bare bones” approach provides rare performance opportunities for young singers.
The principals grasped this opportunity with both hands. Melbourne-based Ukrainian soprano Rada Tochalna was particularly impressive as Violetta, revealing a strong, agile voice that expressed her character’s passion beautifully. She was also the most confident actor among the cast, notable for her naturalism and noble poise. Her Act II parting from Alfredo was a dramatic and vocal heartbreaker of breathless emotion.
Currently studying in Melbourne, American tenor Patrick MacDevitt holds his own beside Tochalna in the role of Alfredo. While there’s sometimes a little too much vocal force in passages of heightened emotion, his was a well rounded performance: powerful, pleasing voice and capable acting. Alfredo’s father Giorgio became Alfredo’s brother for this production – a sensible switch given the cast’s youthfulness, and effective except when Violetta asked that he embrace her like a daughter. Giorgio’s deep but restrained emotion was well conveyed by Josh Erdelyi-Götz, whose baritone has a lovely pure tone.
The supporting cast, most of whom juggled minor roles and chorus duties, generally sang well – notably Lisa Lally, whose dramatic mezzo brought gravitas to the doctor. They were sometimes slightly out of synch with the orchestra during Act I, perhaps due to awkward sightlines between the low stage and conductor James Penn, who stood at the rear of the level auditorium, off to one side. Apart from some ragged violin, his little ensemble – piano, cello, viola and two violins – provided able accompaniment.
A much more significant challenge for the chorus was director Kate Millett’s concept for the Act I and II party scenes. Bourgeois S&M hanky panky could be visually appealing in better resourced hands, and has great potential as a way to explore the opera’s gender and power politics, but just looked awkward here.
Another problematic element was the backdrop projections. Act I’s animated black-and-white abstractions had no apparent connection to the drama apart from colour. Later, stock footage of rapidly blooming flowers echoed the love between Violetta and Alfredo – unnecessary the first time and, when reprised in Act III, a frenetic distraction to their tragic duet, which was otherwise a performance highlight.
Vaguely vintage costumes for the cast of 12 were a more successful aspect of the production’s design. Evocative of character and context, they were simple but effective – or, in the case of two glittering, figure-hugging looks for Tochalna, glamorous and effective.
As per BK’s mission statement, there was no set, but the low stage was augmented by an adjoining central floor space, covered in a robust gold material that was strewn with crepe flowers in Act II. The audience was seated either side of this space, at right angles to the stage, which was sometimes slightly awkward (especially for keen surtitle readers), but had the distinct advantage of occasionally putting the performers in close proximity – what a rare treat to behold a passionate duet unfolding a mere metre away, while sipping a mug of tea.
BK Opera’s La Traviata was at its best when, instead of drawing attention to what was lacking, it focused on what it definitely had, in fact it’s raison d’être: good performances, especially singing. Clearly the result of a big budget of talent and determination rather than dollars, it’s a credit to all involved and worth seeing if your interest in opera is more about substance than style.
At the time of publication, two of the four performances remain, on 24 and 26 August, 2017. www.bkopera.com.au/la-traviata-2017