The cast of La Traviata | State Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

It all looked strangely familiar. And it was. I’d seen this Trav before; on the Lyric Theatre stage in Brisbane in 2009, an Opera Australia import by Opera Queensland. The same sumptuous costumes. The same grand sets. The same sublime Russian soprano.

Opera-goers live in a perpetual state of déjà vu. It is environmentally friendly theatre — scores and shows recycled from one stage to the next, one year to another. Particularly in a smaller market like Australia. It’s ammunition to those who rail against the art form and its generous public funding. Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini reignited the debate himself in a recent speech, arguing his great love was “captive to its own traditions and peculiarly unaware of the changes that have taken place around it”. My friend Ben Eltham took the next step in Crikey, restating his long-held case that such a stuffy tradition doesn’t deserve a blank cheque from government.

This Trav thumbs its nose at the haters, a 17-year-old production of a 158-year-old opera. Director Elijah Moshinsky was adoringly faithful, creating an aesthetic — late-1800s Paris in all its opulence — exactly as Giuseppe Verdi intended. There’s nothing uniquely contemporary about any of it. If they haven’t already seen it — and many will have — Melbourne audiences will immediately be lulled into the experience. Ten performances in this Spring season will fill the State Theatre to the brim.

None of this is meant as criticism, simply context. If we’re going to debate the future of opera, let’s get real about what we’re defending. It is a beautiful piece, a world-class production, a stage for exemplary theatrical craft and vocal talent. More than that, it remains genuinely moving theatre — even in repeats. To those that love Verdi’s masterpiece, its devastating romanticism, the heart will only grow fonder.

But it is, frankly, reheated as much for commercial reasons as artistic. The familiarity, for some, breeds contempt.

La Traviata endures on the modernity of its sweeping tale (Francesco Maria Piave’s Italian libretto borrows from French novel The Lady Of The Camellias): a woman torn between freedom and love (and the freedom of love). Violetta gives the party circuit away for life with Alfredo, but money is tight, the in-laws are overbearing and romantic rivals wait in the wings. There are family obligations, social standings, issues of duty and morality. Our heroine finally falls through sickness and heartbreak.

The role demands strength and fragility, in equal measure, and in voice and temperament. Elvira Fatykhova delivered; a deeply affecting interpretation blows away any of the cobwebs in the production. The Russian-born prima donna has been a regular visitor to Australia (she’s played the role on these shores twice before) but is making her Melbourne debut. And about time, too. WA Conservatorium of Music graduate Aldo Di Toro puts his experience on Italian stages to good use as a musically muscular Alfredo. Michael Lewis’ sturdy baritone gives authority to dear old dad Giorgio, but all the cast are in fine voice — the rousing act one chorus number Libiamo ne’lieti calici doesn’t disappoint.

Orchestra Victoria is bereft of cash but not command — under Slovenian conductor Marko Letonja (he heads to Hobart next year to lead the Tasmanian Symphony) the pit demonstrates restraint and control particularly in the delicate moments of pianissimo. Brian Castles-Onion takes the baton from December 6.

The design is still exquisite, from Michael Yeargan’s beautifully decorated sets, Nigel Leving’s captivating lighting that creates three seasons on stage, to Peter J Hall’s gorgeous period costumes. Don’t mess with a good thing, right?

Next year La Traviata floats — the inaugural season of Sydney Harbour performances, kicking off in March, will re-imagine the show for an alfresco audience under the creative licence of Francesca Zambello (director), Brian Thomson (set design) and Tess Schofield (costumes). Moshinsky’s production will be retired, perhaps forever, and the circle of operatic life will continue.

This one, at least, we’ll miss.

Aldo di Toro and Elvira Fatykhova in La Traviata | State Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

The details: La Traviata plays eight more performances at the State Theatre, Arts Centre until December 17. Tickets on the company website.