The first Scottish performance of La traviata was in 1857, just four years after the premiere in Venice. During its visit to Glasgow, the Grand Italian Opera Company was denounced by the Kirk for subjecting the populace to “immoralities”. How times have changed. The middle-class audience in Giffnock, the Glasgow suburb where Scottish Opera began its latest tour, did not raise an eyebrow at the sight of Violetta in black bra and suspenders. Nor could they feel aggrieved by the skimpiness of the cast-list – just eight singers and a pianist – because this Traviata had more soul than many a performance with chorus and orchestra.
Over the next two months the production will be seen by 25 communities from Newton Stewart to Shetland. Scottish Opera says 90 per cent of the country’s population will be within a 30-minute drive of one of its performances, but it’s worth a much longer drive. The director-designer team of Annilese Miskimmon and Nicky Shaw have turned La traviata into a critique of the commoditisation of women, drawing parallels between the 19th-century Parisian courtesan and today’s catwalk model. The overture is accompanied by a mime of a woman being auctioned to the highest bidder while the Act Two party scene finds Violetta in the middle of a photo-shoot for lingerie. Alfredo is a fashion photographer – and son of the manse. No wonder the romance goes pear-shaped.
Resourceful decor and lighting, including silhouette and false perspective, expand the imaginative scope of the stage – all on a shoestring budget. The acting is superb; the singing is pretty good, too. Elin Pritchard’s Violetta hits her notes fearlessly, packs a punch at “Love Me, Alfredo” (Edmund Tracey’s English translation) and raises goose-bumps in the finale; like Robyn Lyn Evans’s blithe and boyish Alfredo, she knows how to sing naturally and match words to vocal line. David Stephenson’s Germont deserves his cabaletta, and Susannah Wapshott directs from the piano with such feeling for Verdian style that she really ought to be conducting a mainstage production. This felt like one.