BWW Review: VERDI'S LA TRAVIATA, King's Head Theatre

BWW Review: VERDI'S LA TRAVIATA, King's Head Theatre

BWW Review: VERDI'S LA TRAVIATA, King's Head TheatreOf of the many barriers opera must overcome to reach new fans, the otherness of settings, the irrelevance of plots and the fact that it's often sung (as my mother would remark about many Eurovision songs) "in foreign", are pretty near the top of that list. Well, you can ditch those three straight away in Becca Marriott and Helena Jackson's stripped down (and strippered up) La Traviata, another King's Head show that melds opera's past and present in an irresistible mix.

Violetta, on four inch stilettos, is dancing in a dodgy joint in Bristol, all low crimson lighting and suspiciously sticky lino, when Elijah catches her eye. He's not like the other leerers. He has been reluctantly cajoled into the underground cave by his politician father, Richard, who worries that his son is too asexual for his own good - and soon the smitten boy and sleazy burlesquer are belting out one of his songs (Elijah is a composer).

Not longer after, Elijah and Violetta are an item, but Richard worries about scandal attaching itself to his career and Flora, the club's owner, wants Violetta back on the pole so she can charm the punters and pay her rent.

So there it is - in English, bang up to date and all happening in a Bristol club so authentic it was only missing was a pair of England cricketers trying to get in. It may be a long way from Verdi's original conception of the opera, but it's still got La Traviata's narrative and, crucially, it's still got La Traviata's music.

There's plenty of heavy lifting for the cast of four (alternating through the schedule, mercifully for them) to do. Gráinne Gillis brings a touch of Katie Hopkins's brutal ruthlessness to club owner and landlady, Flora, though with pleasing timbre rather than shrillness in her voice. Victor Sgarbi and Alex Haigh pair up well as the battling father and son, Haigh convincing as a long bullied kid finding an adult's assertiveness.

But this opera is all about Violetta, a role that makes extraordinary demands on its actor. Up very close indeed, we see every smeared stain of over-applied makeup on Emma Walsh's pained face; every twitch of self-disgust as she comes to understand that her body is all she has - or, more accurately, all the world values; and we wince as every last piece of self-esteem is chipped away by those more powerful than her. And, of course, that pain comes through in the singing, the soprano voice penetrating every corner of this small hothouse venue, our escape from it as circumscribed as Violetta's escape from her fate. Her tumultuous applause was well earned.

The show doesn't quite have the pop and fizz that Marriott's La Bohème enjoyed and that may be down to the under-powered music. Panaretos Kyriatzidis has plenty of experience of such venues and the scaling they require, but his lone piano felt a little lost - preferable to drowning out the voices (a far more common problem), but the score was undersold just a touch.

Nevertheless, aficionados of boutique operas will enjoy another classic given the King's Head treatment while newcomers will wonder why they ever found reasons not to enjoy the art form. Both groups will be back.

Verdi's La Traviata continues at the King's Head Theatre until 27 October.

Photo Bill Knight

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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