A full house greeted Northern Ireland Opera’s opening night performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. A homecoming of sorts, this was the first opera in Belfast’s refurbished Grand Opera House since 2019, whereafter life was so rudely interrupted…

Forbidden fruit, unbridled hedonism, an impossible love story and tragedy are the ingredients of one of opera’s most popular works.

Verdi’s beautiful score--played with gusto and sensitivity by the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of the charismatic Rebecca Lang--ensures La Traviata’s enduring appeal, but it is the depressing plight of its leading figure, the courtesan Violetta Valéry, played by the impressive Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg, that underscores its contemporary relevance.

A woman of pleasure, a plaything for the well-heeled, Violetta’s one shot at love and a decent life with the aritsocrat Alfredo Germont, incarnated by American tenor Noah Stewart, is torpedoed by societal mores. One hundred and seventy years after La Traviata was first performed, the scenario of rich men having their way with vulnerable women, then having away with them at the first sniff of public scandal, is sadly still a 21st century norm.

Under the guiding hand of Artistic Director Cameron Menzies, Northern Ireland Opera’s Parisian staging is lavishly handsome, though conventional. Yet while set designer Niall McKeever’s furnishings and candles are very 19th century, the elegant costumes are more contemporary, a nod to Verdi’s intention--overridden by the 19th century censors--that the opera should reflect modern times.

The one detail that consistently pulls the eye--and tugs at the mind--are several strikingly abstract sculptures. Large and grotesquely twisted, they hang over the protagonists--a metaphor for Violetta’s inner turmoil. Or perhaps they represent the elephant in the room of male hypocrisy, sexism, chauvinism, body-shaming and ageism, present both in Verdi’s time and now.

Spare a thought for soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, jeered by the Venetian crowd on La Traviata’s premiere in 1853, as too old and too heavy for the part of Violetta. She was 38. No such ageist concerns for Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk in the role of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, younger than Stewart by four years or so. In opera, a little suspension of disbelief always helps.

Yurchuk is compelling. His rich baritone carries the requisite gravitas when Giorgio Germont insists that Violetta part from his son to preserve his family’s honor and so as not to offend God. Later, wracked with regret for the tragic course of actions that he has unleashed, his poignant duet with Violetta is tenderly aching.

Ravishing choruses, as hypnotic as the marquee arias, inject periodic brio into the musical narrative. A brilliant piece of choreography by Isabel Baquero sees the Act II party enlivened by a floorboard-rattling flamenco dance troupe, led by a swashbuckling matador, Venezuelan dancer Doni Fierro. Sensuality and passion in spades.

The star of the show, however, is Siobhan Stagg who seems to breeze through her technically challenging parts with élan. Her great emotional range brings necessary depth to Violetta’s tortured soul, depth that is lacking to a degree in the male protagonists’ characters.

Violetta’s sacrifice sees her rewarded with insults and ultimately, an early death from consumption. Alfredo and Giorgio Germont’s remorse and contrition, in the end, comes too late for the suffering Violetta: “To die so near the dawn after the long night of tears!”

In an era where the question of women’s right to control their own bodies is challenged, legally and violently, La Traviata still bristles with contemporary relevance. Violetta may be one of opera’s saddest figures, but at least Verdi bestowed her with some of his most affecting music.

A vibrant, colorful and moving ensemble performance from the still young but precocious Northern Ireland Opera team.

Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor Rebecca Lang
Director Cameron Menzies
Designer Niall McKeever