Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
March 1, 2018

Regular Opera Australia audiences will be very familiar with Elijah Moshinsky’s production of La Traviata. It has, after all, been in the repertoire since 1994. Beautiful though the staging still is, the fact that the production is one of the highlights of the 2018 season is because of the excitement surrounding Nicole Car’s debut as Violetta – and what a stunning debut it was. Greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation and roars of approval from the opening night audience, her radiant performance will doubtless go down in OA history as a night to remember.

Nicole Car in Opera Australia’s La Traviata. Photos © Prudence Upton

Australian audiences have been lucky enough to be able to follow the burgeoning career of the Melbourne-born soprano who joined OA as a Young Artist in 2011 and has since gradually built her repertoire there with lovely performances as Mimì in La Bohème, Marguerite in Faust, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and the title role in Thaïs among others.

Now based in Paris, Car’s international career is taking flight (she made her Covent Garden debut in 2015 and later this year will debut at the Metropolitan Opera) but she has returned home to take on her first Verdi roles.

She made her Verdi debut in 2016 when she played the title role in Luisa Miller for OA, giving a remarkable performance both vocally and dramatically. She now follows that up with another exceptional debut as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s tragic masterpiece, based on the 1852 play La Dame Aux Camélias, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils which was inspired by real-life French courtesan Marie Duplessis who lived life to the full before dying at just 23.

Nicole CarNicole Car and Ji-Min Park in Opera Australia’s La Traviata

Moshinsky’s sumptuous, naturalistic production may be rather tightly squeezed onto the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, but it remains a gorgeous looking, keenly observed, insightful rendering of the opera. Michael Yeargan’s grand sets and Peter J Hall’s glamourous, colourful costumes still work their magic, creating just the right period world for the story.

The opening scene captures the hustle and bustle of a lavish 19th-century party at Violetta’s Paris salon as guests gather in a gaslit room full of heavy brocade drapes, scattered rugs, armchairs, gilt framed paintings and a large chandelier. For the Act II confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, in which he begs her to leave his son and remove the taint from their family so that his daughter’s proposed marriage can go ahead, Yeargan’s autumnal set – a rustic courtyard with bare tree trunks and single autumn leaves falling now and again – establishes an appropriately sad, wistful mood. Then after a return to the world of the Parisian salon for Flora’s party, the final tragic denouement in Act III takes place in the same room as Act I but now stripped bare – the stage stark and open with just an armchair for the frail Violetta.

Nigel Levings’ lighting brings each space to life, creating exactly the right ambience, the pale light he shines on Car in the final act helping to drain her of life.

In Act I, Car’s Violetta is the hostess with the mostest, flitting from guest to guest dispensing champagne (would she not have flunkies though, as a friend remarked) and making all feel welcome, while conveying her underlying fear at her ill-health, and fainting a couple of times. Car captures that dichotomy beautifully. Her thrilling Sempre libera conveys a spirited determination to rise above sickness – and what a gorgeously observed little moment when she hears Alfredo serenade her from the street and smiles a quiet, serene little smile as the realisation of his true love blooms in her mind – while in È strano, she touchingly reveals the fear beneath her glittering façade.

La Traviata, Opera AustraliaJi-Min Park in Opera Australia’s La Traviata

Recently described by OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini as “a lyric soprano with coloratura tendencies”, Car handles the complex coloratura demands in Act I with elegant aplomb, but it is in the more lyrical second and third acts that she really comes into her own with a ravishing, heart-breaking performance.

Her voice, strong across its entire range, has a luscious creaminess at the top, and a darker, glowing middle register. Allied with a warm stage presence, an intuitive sense of drama and an ability to convey subtle shifts of emotion, she is the complete performer, equally seductive both vocally and dramatically.

For the Act II confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo’s father, Car captures Violetta’s dignity and heart-breaking sacrifice perfectly, and her death scene is heart-rending as she oscillates between resignation and desperation to live, particularly with Alfredo’s sudden return. Her soaring vocal lines are exquisite and physically she conveys a body wracked with illness.

Nicole Car, Opera Australia, La TraviataNicole Car and Vitaliy Bilyy in Opera Australia’s La Traviata

Car is surrounded by a strong cast. Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy sings superbly as Giorgio Germont, his voice firm, strong and authoritative. He gives us a patrician, granite-like figure, less fatherly than is sometimes the case, a determined one-eyed man initially, who sees no irony in saying to Violetta: “Don’t let the roses of love turn to misery”, speaking of his daughter. His gradual remorse is convincingly done and he and Car are well matched vocally.

South Korean tenor Ji-Min Park, who will be familiar to OA audiences having played Rodolfo in La Bohème for the company several times, is slightly awkward physically as Alfredo, though in some ways it gives the character an endearing quality. But he has an attractive, warm, smooth lyricism across his range. He sings with increasing passion as the opera progresses, and is particularly impressive in the final heart-breaking scene.

There’s terrific support too in the smaller roles. Anna Dowsley shines as Flora, having stepped into the part at late notice. Adrian Tamburini gives an impressively detailed cameo performance as the unpleasant Baron Douphol, Violetta’s jealous protector, as does Tom Hamilton as Flora’s unfaithful Marquis, and John Longmuir as Alfredo’s friend Gastone. Natalie Aroyan delivers a beautifully sung Annina, Violetta’s faithful maid, and Gennadi Dubinsky is a kindly doctor.

Nicole Car, La Traviata, Opera AustraliaGennadi Dubinsky and Nicole Car in Opera Australia’s La Traviata

The Opera Australia chorus, meanwhile, is as superb as we have come to expect, throwing themselves into whatever is required dramatically and singing gloriously.

In the pit, Andrea Licata (who conducted Car in Luisa Miller) leads the orchestra in a very fine account of Verdi’s seductively melodic score, finding all the dramatic and emotional textures in this most powerful and perennially popular of music dramas.

So, a marvellous performance all around – though the opening night belonged to the radiant Nicole Car. Catch her while you can.

La Traviata is at the Sydney Opera House until March 27