Kate Cherry's production of La Traviata was launched in Adelaide last month to critical acclaim. The Australian praised it as "beautifully nuanced in character, situation and dramatic truth", and Auckland operagoers can check it out for themselves when NZ Opera presents it from June 19.
Lorina Gore, who takes over the role of Violetta from Elvira Fatykhova for the New Zealand season, was in the Adelaide audience and assures me that our Traviata will not be quite the same.
"Our production is different because Kate has been working with the new cast to find our strengths," the Australian soprano says during a rehearsal break. "She is embracing these qualities and letting us bring our own identities to the characters we play."
Now in her mid-30s, Gore has sustained an impressive career over the Tasman, most recently singing Woglinde in the Melbourne Ring cycle. In the 90s she was drawn to musical theatre but, in her late teens, an unexpected encounter set her on an operatic path.
"Sitting in the library at Australian National University, I was listening to Joan Sutherland singing the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor," she says. "I realised then that that was what I wanted to do."
With university studies behind her, she found herself with Sydney's Opera Australia, working in the company's schools programme. "We would often be packing up during lunchtimes and I would hear the kids singing my Queen of the Night Aria in the playground," she laughs. "They'd only heard the music once but they could mimic it perfectly. They were like little sponges."
By the time Gore first visited us in 2006 to play Norina in NBR NZ Opera's Don Pasquale, she had won many awards and completed studies at London's National Opera Studio. "We toured to 14 cities in both the North and South Islands," Gore says. "I remember the warmth of the audiences, all the bus journeys in between the performances, the privilege of having Wyn Davies as conductor and how delightful it was to work with Conal Coad who not only sang the lead role but directed the production."
One of the strengths of that production was the sprightly ensemble playing and Gore says her job is more rewarding "when you have colleagues who are on the same wave length as you both dramatically and musically".
Today, she singles out Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, the conductor of the upcoming Traviata. "He not only knows the score very well but his instincts with this music are the same as mine. When your ideas are at odds with those of the conductor it can be difficult to relax."
Another plus for Gore is director Cherry, the woman responsible for NZ Opera's Butterfly last year.
"I love directors who come from the theatre. They really look into the work from a solid knowledge of the background and the text. Kate's interested in finding the truth for a character -- there are no grand gestures or airs and graces, but instead the creation of real people. That's when opera becomes really exciting."
Gore finds Verdi's tale of the tragic Violetta deeply touching. "I spent most of yesterday in tears, reading that letter from Giorgio at the end saying that Alfredo is coming back. This story is just so incredibly moving and emotionally exhausting."
Does she feel that this story of a 19th century courtesan has relevance for us?
"The themes of love and not having someone that you love are still with us, although the whole issue of Violetta's consumption has changed. This is why updated productions don't work. These days we have antibiotics to cure the disease." I mention how opera-sceptics take delight in pointing out that a woman in Violetta's state of health would not be physically able to cope with Verdi's vocal demands. This soprano who, in 2009, played Yum-Yum in The Mikado and Mozart's Queen of the Night in one season, was offered the role of Violetta a few years ago but she didn't feel ready for it.
"My voice has changed now," she says. "Earlier on I was a high, light coloratura, which suited the Queen of the Night. I've got a little older and have had a child. Hormones change your voice quite a lot and it's more settled. Now I have the strength in my lower notes to do justice to Violetta."
Gore says Verdi is "just wonderful" to sing. "He's so instinctively right when it comes to the colours and the quality of voices. Originally, I thought it would be quite big and verismo in approach. There are moments when you can hear that but mostly it's in the bel canto style of Bellini and Donizetti, which I've always loved."
Verdi: 'Was the fault mine? Time will tell'
The 1853 premiere of Verdi's La Traviata was, like those of Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's Madame Butterfly, one of the great operatic disasters. It received a rough reception from the audience. Afterwards, its 40-year-old composer wrote: "La Traviata last night a failure. Was the fault mine or the singers'? Time will tell."
But time has seen it become one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Auckland has not seen it on stage since the 2005 NBR New Zealand Opera production, but it makes regular appearances on the Arts Channel, starring the likes of Anna Netrebko and Renee Fleming.
The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas, which provided Verdi and librettist Piave with their inspiration, is one of the world's great love stories. But there's more to it than the sentimentality that pours off the screen during the 1936 film Camille, in which Greta Garbo played the doomed heroine.
Violetta is a courtesan, a calling that so shocked some English critics in the 19th century that the Times previewed its first production with accusations of "foul and hideous horrors".
American soprano Licia Albanese, a memorable Violetta in her time, was more understanding, describing the heroine's troubles as arising from the fact that she was "a young girl in the big city, Paris, and was sent flowers and all that". Inevitably, modern interpretations can see Violetta as a victim of the male patriarchy, a woman caught between the charming Alfredo (beautifully captured by a young Placido Domingo in Zeffirelli's 1982 film of the opera) and his father Giorgio. The opera catches this to perfection, from the frivolous Violetta, reeling off the brilliant Sempre libera in the opening scene to her death, laced with musical and dramatic ironies.
Benjamin Britten was an admirer of the work and although he soon got bored with Puccini's La Boheme, he found himself "looking forward with excitement to each successive performance of Traviata. "In fact, after at least a dozen performances I felt I was only just beginning to know it, to appreciate its depths of emotion, and musical strength."
What: La Traviata
Where and when: Aotea Centre, June 19, 21, 25, 27, all 7.30pm; June 29, 2.30pm