“La Traviata”, Hong Kong, 17-18 June 2017

Soprano Lei Xu and baritone Seungwook Seong Soprano Lei Xu and baritone Seungwook Seong

The reportedly increasing average age of opera audiences—or the flip-side of a purported lack of appeal to new and younger audiences—is a cause of ongoing angst among opera circles the world over. Regardless of whether the reports of opera’s death may in fact be exaggerated, it is encouraging when someone deliberately sets out to do something about it.

Hong Kong’s “More than Musical” debuted its first production—an abridged version of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata—in an nontraditional physical configuration: a more or less triangular performance space with seats on (almost) all sides, a performance in the polygonal, if not quite in the round.

The result was an evening of theatre as much as it was opera.

If one is going to introduce classical Western opera to the wary—More than Musical’s stated goal—one can make the case that La Traviata is one to start with. The tragic story of Violetta, Alfredo and his meddling father Giorgio Germont, is perennial: a courtesan (rendered rather more explicitly in this version) gives up everything for the man she loves, even the man himself, only to be discarded in turn. It has some of Verdi’s best music and one of the best-known duets in all opera. More than Musical has—in the pursuit of relevance, one supposes—reset the action close to the present: mobile phones, lines of coke, a gun and a briefcase of money make their appearance.

 

By design and by practical necessity, both the production and the score were reduced. Accompaniment consisted of a piano and violin. Some minor characters were excised (and some lines distributed to roles that remained) while Verdi’s choruses were entirely dispensed with. Some other scenes were also cut—at least in part due to dramatic necessity: they would not have made sense without the choruses and minor characters.

For those who know the opera, this Traviata was an interesting, and in several ways innovative, exercise. The cuts were, on the whole, relatively seamless, although the second scene of Act II—the party to which Alfredo follows Violetta to confront her—lost some of its nuance. The violin accompaniment was used to particularly fortuitous dramatic effect, acting almost as an additional voice.

The violinist herself doubled as a specter confronting Violetta, creating a duet between soprano and musician.

Violin soloist Nina Wong Sin
Violin soloist Nina Wong Sin

The violin soloist herself doubled as a sort of specter confronting Violetta, especially in the last Act in which she is dying. This sort of thing—visions and ghosts—has been done before, but not in my experience as part of the music itself: the very effective result could at times seem like a duet between soprano and musician.

More than Musical presented the performance as opera suitable for a contemporary (read “millennial”) lifestyle but as the evening wore on, it became clear that the net effect as much theatrical as operatic. Just as opera-film, as the Europeans call it, is not quite opera, neither was this. It was opera as theatre: opera-theatre, perhaps. The removal of orchestration and choruses changed the pacing and sensory depth of the work; plot and intimacy between characters and audience came to the fore. Several character interactions were added: in tarditional productions, Violetta is alone when sings her Act I aria È strano! È strano! … Ah, fors’è lui… in which she muses on life and love, but here she both her maid and a returned but no longer desired lover (the Barone) become foils for her thoughts.

There were however no subtitles, so for newcomers the evening may have been a bit like watching Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in Russian. While projected synopses and music undoubtedly helped, the finer points of the dialogue and plot would have to have been guessed at. This might in some ways have been just as well, because the adaption resulted in words that were not always consistent with the action. I do not know what the term for “text message” is in Italian, but I know it isn’t “foglio”. Germont, the father, was played effectively but considerably more belligerently than is traditional, an interpretation that works dramatically but which isn’t entirely consistent with the actual words.

 

Streamlined the score and production may have been, but there was no skimping on the casting. The three leads all sang with conviction and an Italianate expressiveness. Alfredo was Korean tenor Ji-Min Park, who has in recent years taken leading roles with such companies as Opera Australia and Teatro la Fenice, making him by these standards something of a veteran. He has a clear, warm, young voice with a nice ping in the high notes. His father was sung by Seungwook Seong, also Korean, who possesses a sonorous baritone; his portrayal of an abrasive rather than priggish Germont was convincing if nontraditional.

Soprano Lei Xu (Photo: Dario Acosta
Soprano Lei Xu (Photo: Dario Acosta)

The find of the evening was Chinese soprano Lei Xu. This was theatre as much if not more than opera—there was considerably more actual character interaction than is usual—and she held the intimate performing space in her palm. Oh yes, she can sing too. Can she ever sing. This, I suppose, is the reason why those who aren’t wary of opera go to everything they can: one might just hear someone special. One suspects that should we ever be fortunate enough to hear Lei Xu in Hong Kong again, it might be on a rather larger stage.

Whether these efforts succeed in promoting opera as a lifestyle choice remains to be seen. But question implies a clear dividing line between opera and other performing arts while the performance was evidence that no such line exists. Operatic aspirations aside, this must surely have been among the best evenings of theatre put on by a local Hong Kong company in quite some time.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.