BWW Review: VIOLETTA, Grimeborn Festival, Arcola Theatre
Just the three singers, bare brick walls, one piano. Welcome to Grimeborn, the Arcola Theatre's annual season of stripped back operas that gets you up close and personal with the emotions, the music and the voices that make the art form so compelling.
Opera Allegra's Violetta is a perfect example of the pros and cons of the pared back approach. We don't get La Traviata (how could we?) but we get Violetta's story, Verdi's tunes and the visceral thrill of hearing such singers standing so close that you can count their fillings were you so inclined.
Alfredo is in love with Violetta, but she has a "past" and is weak and coughing. Passion is blind of course, and they drink to the sheer joy of being alive and in love. But Alfredo's mother disapproves of the match - moreover, it threatens the engagement of her other daughter to a nobleman who considers himself tainted by such a familial link to a courtesan.
Violetta knows what she must do if she really loves Alfredo and runs off. But love finds a way, all the way up to the very end. No spoilers now - but this is Italian opera.
It all sounds fantastic! Productions with far larger budgets could learn much about how to balance voices and music, so giving the ears neither a noisy pounding nor a mushy mash-up - each note is clear, each word is clear. The surtitles don't always keep pace with the vocals, but nobody is in any doubts as to what's going on, so they're only really there if you need them.
Loretta Hopkins lets loose the emotions of Violetta, but her singing is razor sharp, thrillingly authentic and moving as the hopelessness of her situation becomes apparent. Ben Leonard's Alfredo captures the crazy energy of a man in the throes of passion and his singing is as accurate as his co-star's.
Alison Thorman (who also devised the show) is on stage throughout, an austere presence more like Whistler's Mother than Alfredo's, a representation of how society's mores can intrude on the happiness of people who just want to enjoy their brief time between cradle and grave. Her mezzo-soprano, more equivocal than Hopkins's soprano, suits the role with its misplaced affection, its false wisdom.
Pianist, Simon Howat, plays the famous tunes (even if you haven't seen La Traviata, you'll know most of them) and the storytelling stays true to the core of the source material (although an offstage Baron is introduced rather late and perhaps unnecessarily confuses matters).
Performed all-through in an intense 90 minutes, Violetta will please those familiar with Verdi's ever popular opera and anyone looking to sample the art form without paying an arm and a leg (and, perhaps, getting a sore bum too) at one of the major houses in the West End. So that's Grimeborn's mission delivered by the first cab off its rank!