REVIEW: Fringe: The Trousered Traviata

May 8, 2015


The Trousered Traviata
Secret Opera Company
The Otherplace

Brighton Fringe

In a flapping noisy tent with the wind picking up outside we sat down to watch Verdi’s tragic opera Traviata, but with a female cast.

Having an all female cast changed the whole tone of the opera; remarkably so, with a mean mother and female lovers changing the texture of this misogynist opera and teasing out some complex and surprisingly challenging ideas and also giving more flesh and menace to some of the motivations. I really rather liked it and won’t be looking at a mixed gendered performance of La Traviata the same again. It’s usual to see women play men in Opera, ‘trouser roles’ as they are called are a standard part of the repertoire, but this is something different as it changed the gender of the character rather than just the singer and casts the focus of the protagonist and her journey of decent into something altogether more meaty, and thus more heartfelt and tragic. Well done all concerned.

My companion, who has seen Traviata quite a few times in some of the best opera houses in the world said afterwards ‘I come to opera for those moments when I’m transfixed and transported, and the world melts away and all there is, is the voice, tonight in a windy tent at the Brighton Fringe I’ve done that a few times’. That’s no mean compliment from her as she’s a much harsher (and funnier) critic than I could wish to be, and one I’m going to agree with. Although there were some shortcomings with the technical stuff on the night this was surpassed with a surprising grace and ease by this wonderfully talented group of singers and I would spur you on, and encourage you to grab tickets for their remaining shows just to bask in this transporting transformative and transgressive Trousered Traviata directed by Robin Pieta with a real lightness allowing the women and the characters they portray to engage through their voices, exactly how opera should be.

See the full production information here on the company website.

I’m not fan of Verdi and often want his heroines to die a little quicker so I can get back to the bar but tonight The Secret Opera company made me care and mourn this most fragile and diaphanous of Traviata’s sung with a subtle noble grace which allowed her voice to carry up into the high registers and hover there like her soul. For once, she died far too quickly.

The biggest drawback was a lack of translation. They were singing in Italian with no program notes, no printed synopsis or help with the story. I’m very familiar with the story but I couldn’t help but think that the very clever effects of an all female cast on this story and the much more complex story it then projected were lost on an audience who didn’t really know what was going on. I also felt, especially as this had been touted as a performance with a particular LGBT focus that there should have been just a little more ‘lady action’ going down on stage as this is, at it’s heart, a story of a stunningly desirable women well aware of her allure and using that allure to ‘get along’. From the same director – Robin Pieta – as CarMen which had rather more sexy semi-nude man on man action going down, the wooing here felt a littler more like a schoolgirl crush than the meeting of two great romantic lovers. Press those lips together next time ladies, un-lace a bodice or two and hold it for a second or two your audience expects it!

(the production company contacted me to say that there had been a malfunction of the projector equipment which was supposed to project the sur-title of the text and the story as the show progressed, they have reassured me that this will be functional for the next show)

static1However, these are quibbles about a show which was a triumph, and I was seriously surprised by the quality of the singing, both from Jennifer Walker who sang Traviata as a study in fragility and hope and from the rest of the cast. Although there were moments of harder brassiness in some of the voices this soon faded, as a whole they combined with a sophisticated grace which allowed the power and colour of each of the singers voices to complement the others. Alfreda played by the (only) one in trousers Rosalind O’Dowd was fun, bashful and projected a bravado in her voice and actions which worked well with Walkers more gentle tremulous style. Bronwen Stephens’ performance of snobby ice queen mother Giorgia who hides none of her distaste for socially inferior Violetta was genuinely scary and I’d not like to cross that women, the original Father always came across as a bit of buffoon and selfish rather than nasty, this new shading bring a whole new study of wolf maternity to this opera and casts out, once and for all, that subtle misogynistic subtext to Violetta’s life. It felt far more Chekhov than Verdi by the end, in it’s dealings with the inter relationships of a group of women.

To watch Georgia Germont and Violetta, click here:

The musical accompaniment from Ezra Williams on piano was wonderful, his touch was remarkable, simple, clear and evocative and I was as impressed by his playing as much as I was by the singing. The simplicity of a single accompaniment not detracting from the tonal complexity of the music, but allowing the singers and the story to shine. The excellent use of shade and spotlights worked well on this unforgiving stage and the cast were lucky with the weather too.

All in all a very pleasant surprise and a very good night out.

Recommended! Book now! For their Sunday show!

For more info or to buy tickets, click here: