Elijah Moshinsky’s 1994 production of La Traviata must surely delight anyone seeing it for the first time, but those who have had the good fortune of experiencing its Belle Époque beauty and drama on multiple occasions could become complacent. To make them sit up and take notice, some exceptional singing may be required – which was duly delivered on opening night of Opera Australia’s Melbourne autumn season. Having heard marvellous reports about soprano Stacey Alleaume’s starring roles in Sydney over recent years, Melbourne finally got the chance to be dazzled as she made her hometown mainstage debut. Has this venerable production ever had a better Violetta?

La Traviata OA 2022

Stacey Alleaume and Ho-Yoon Chung in La Traviata, Opera Australia, 2022. Photo © Jeff Busby

First performed in Venice in 1853, Verdi’s La Traviata is a classic melodrama about wealthy courtesan Violetta, who gives it all away for the man who truly loves her, Alfredo. His father, Giorgio, persuades the distraught and consumptive ‘fallen woman’ of the title to give him up, and tragedy ensues.

Violetta goes on a rollercoaster ride of emotion, a journey Alleaume seems to make almost effortlessly. From the get-go she impresses as an actor, flitting about the busy Act I party scene with charming gestures, looks and laughs, but when the crowd moves on Alleaume shows us why she’s really here: her voice is spectacular and also reveals the inner Violetta. The searching, contemplative cantabile that begins the act’s two-part finale is a showcase of expressiveness underpinned by subtle, finely controlled dynamic shifts, then Alleaume stuns the audience with the defiantly joyful cabaletta’s coloratura force, agility and clear, ringing top notes. Through Acts II and III, as both actor and singer, she conveys the varying shades of Violetta’s grief with devastating impact.

As Alfredo, Korean Ho-Yoon Chung is overshadowed by Alleaume, and there’s not much chemistry between them. While technically excellent, his tenor is underpowered in Act I, and drowned out by the orchestra at critical moments in the next. His vocal power and passion build to a strong Act III, however. Italian baritone Mario Cassi interprets Giorgio with memorable gravitas. His confident, richly toned voice and still, unhurried presence convinces us of his character’s shifting attitude, from caring only about his own children to embracing Violetta like a daughter. Cassi’s Act II duet with Alleaume is a highlight.

In tiny roles the supporting cast are accomplished, with Agnes Sarkis a very creditable late replacement in the role of Violetta’s friend Flora on opening night. The ever reliable Opera Australia Chorus’ splendid harmony and dynamics are the reward for obviously rigorous rehearsal, also evident in the poise with which they move about the crowded party scenes. Under the baton of Renato Palumbo, Orchestra Victoria assuredly expresses the drama of Verdi’s romantic, melodic score, most notably strings that are by turns delicate then lush.

Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J Hall’s costumes are a feast for the eyes in the two party scenes. These riots of Belle Époque high society colour, gilding, rich fabrics and furnishings are contrasted with two sparse, grey scenes: an autumnal courtyard for Violetta’s meeting with Giorgio, and her grand salon all but emptied of objects, colour and life for the playing out of her demise. This contrast vividly demonstrates the choices she must make, and the circumstances imposed upon her.

Something old, something new proves to be a successful combination for Opera Australia’s first appearance in Melbourne since this time last year. The visual pleasure and dramatic impact of Moshinsky’s production (revived by Constantine Costi) endure, while Cassi and particularly Alleaume’s talents are newfound delights Melbourne opera lovers will want to experience again and again.

Opera Australia’s La Traviata is at the State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 May, then at the Sydney Opera House, 5 July – 4 November.

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