Arnold Rutkowski and Emma Matthews in La traviata (Pic: Branco Gaica)

It’s back. One assumes, by popular demand. Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s La traviata will soon (next year) turn 20, so it’s been around the block a few times. But it’s no old clunker. It’s a vintage classic. And provided you get the cast right, as on this occasion, you can’t really go wrong.

It’s just possible Emma Matthews has never sung better. She brings a vocal subtlety and dramatic sensitivity to her role as Violetta that is, in my experience, unprecedented and truly moving. So much so, she’s fast making the role hers and hers alone. This may be partly inspired by Patrick Lange, who seems to really engage with the singers, as well as orchestra, during a performance. I might have had a severely restricted view during act one (due to being relegated to a box seat, with thanks to Sydney buses), but it serendipitously afforded me an opportunity to intimately observe such. And the Joan Sutherland Theatre certainly provides an opportunity to finesse the role Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour didn’t and, really, couldn’t.

Lange has also been sensible to the qualities and character of tenor Arnold Rutkowski, who plays Violetta’s ardent, somewhat naive, younger admirer. Rutkowski proves an outstandingly relative match-up with Matthews, especially in her current guise. I suspect, too, she and the director, as well as Lange, have carefully benchmarked Violetta’s vocal presentation alongside Alfredo’s: Rutkowski has a superbly refined timbre so that listening to the two together is like tasting honey made from two different nectars. Mind you, Rutkowski’s doesn’t necessarily prove the most powerful or commanding of voices (or didn’t, to begin with, on the night); though, happily, this lacking seemed to write itself as things came up to operating temperature and recordings I’ve heard, including live, of his work tend to render this exception the exception to the rule.

In any case, as good as Matthews’, Rutkowski’s and numerous other voices (I’m thinking of Shane Lowrencev, whose vocal stature, as Violetta’s protector, Baron Douphol, is as towering as his physical and Richard Anderson, as Doctor Grenvil, to name but two) were, the shining star in this department is Jose Carbo, whose smooth, rich, dark chocolate, effortless baritone couldn’t have acquitted better. There was palpable simpatico between Violetta and Giorgio (by way of one between Matthews and Carbo, one surmises) that enriches the story no end. One can’t help but speculate upon, given different circumstances, a romance, since Violetta seems to share greater rapport with her lover’s father that her lover. Yes, it’s a matter of platonic, dutiful, virtually daughterly self-sacrifice on her part, but might there have been something more? Or is it just me? In any case, this pairing seems to raise the tantalising possibility.

In calibrating the character of Giorgio, Carbo succeeds in endowing him with complexity: on the one hand, he’s the censorious, condescending, chauvinistic, would-be father-in-law, chastening Violetta mercilessly. On the other, he’s empathic, introspective and almost doting. He suffers remorse for having taken too hard-and-fast a stand against her relationship with his son; a loss which, in concert with her consumption, has cost her everything. But while Carbo pitches Giorgio’s emotional dimensions perfectly, his physical stiffness is something of an impediment to the drama.

There’s compensation, though, in Verdi’s own skill. La traviata, along with Rigoletto and Il trovatore, were works with which the composer reshaped what had become  quite predictable. All of a sudden, we had recitative, aria and ensemble coming together, to keep dramatic momentum; there was a new focus on steeping the narrative in a depth of emotion and affording penetrating psychological insights into his characters. He also became less obsessed with bel canto, in deference to narrative and dramatic continuity. There’s also maturity and mastery in his correspondence of musical figures to the many moodswings of the piece.

La traviata (The Fallen Woman) begins on a tragic note that’s emblematic of Verdi’s (not to mention librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s and, before that, Alexandre Dumas’) genius, inasmuch as the end is signalled at the very beginning: Violetta may emerge, rejuvenated, for a spring soiree, but it’s only a temporary reprieve and we  know it’s going to end badly.

One wonders, incidentally, if the opera shouldn’t revert to its original title, Violetta, to suspend the kind of judgemental connotations that attend the notion of the strayed, or straying, woman and intimate more sympathy for the key character who, were it not for the second-rate citizenship that seems to come with her profession, might otherwise be regarded as an outright heroine. There’s also the pseudo-religious taint of the sinner being punished, which remains, for all the implicit poeticism, offensive.

Perhaps these are considerations for a future production. For the present, Michael Yeargan’s sets are exquisitely detailed and handsomely realised. Practically no time is taken in transforming the stage, to set entirely new scenes and the changes are effected in complete silence. Miraculous. In this, Crissie Higgins’ stage management deserves a big-up. It should be said, too, that while all due credit should be afforded Moshinsky for his original vision, it’s rehearsal director Roger Press who’s drawn everything and everyone together for this season.

Moshinsky’s vision of La traviata, especially so with this particular cast, brings a finesse that defies the opera’s grand scale and sumptuousness. Somehow, there’s an intimacy, both musical and dramatic, that one associates more readily with a chamber work. It’s a kind of magic. I suppose that’s why it holds up so very favourably, even after all these years.

The details: La traviata plays the Joan Sutherland Theatre until August 31. Tickets on the company website.