There are those who railed at New Zealand Opera's conservative offerings this year. However, in defence of this current, magnificent La Traviata, one must point out that Auckland last experienced this work nine years ago and that, in the final count, Verdi's opera is a verifiable masterpiece.
Director Kate Cherry, designer Christina Smith and lighting man Matt Scott have created a spectacular staging. Each lift of the curtain introduces a new theatrical coup, yet the essential humanity of the characters locked into this world is never overwhelmed.
During Verdi's poignant orchestral prelude, Cherry hints at tragedies to come - a wraith-like Violetta, awaking in a deserted ballroom, circles around her radiant former self, groomed and gowned for the opening party.
In the second act, Cherry goes for stark immediacy. Violetta, Alfredo and his father Germont play their intense emotional games against a huge cyclorama of flowers that shift inexorably from a warm pinkish red to much cooler hues. The masked ball that follows is stunning. Set and costumes are an ingenious weave of black, russet and gold.
Alfredo's bitter and very public attack on Violetta shocks and the haunting image of the singer, vulnerable in a harsh, white spotlight, was still with me the next morning.
The role of Violetta demands much from a soprano and Lorina Gore is impressive. A slight tightness in the first act coloratura is probably first-night nerves, and she goes on to invest Verdi's heroine with a nobility of spirit and voice. A heart-wrenching Addio del passato benefits from one of Cherry's many plays with reflective surfaces, creating not one but four Violettas singing this aria of farewell.
Samuel Sakker's Alfredo grows in confidence after some less than convincing first-act swagger; a moving De miei bollenti spiriti augurs well for the rest of his performance.
David Stephenson's Germont, although occasionally strained in tone, is as sleek a silver fox as one could wish for.
Amongst the smaller roles, Rachelle Pike is an effectively brittle Flora, Wendy Doyle a solicitous Annina and, in a consistently strong male line-up, Australian David Hibbard's Dr Grenvil dispenses a special charisma.
The chorus is a veritable force, dramatically and musically, livening the masked ball with displays of gypsy fire and matador machismo.
Throughout, the redoubtable Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra responds with panache to the persuasive baton of Emmanuel Joel-Hornak. Not to be missed.