A star is born in Parisian salon

27 October 2022

West Australian Opera’s production of La Traviata is faultless, with an outstanding local cast led by a mega-star in the making, writes Bourby Webster.

La Traviata, West Australian Opera ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 25 October 2022 ·

Samantha Clarke is a star. And it’s not just me saying it. Word on the street since rehearsals began for one of Verdi’s most loved operas, La Traviata, is that the young woman making her role debut is remarkable. 

With two performances down, three to go on World Opera Day, the joint production between West Australian Opera, State Opera South Australia and Opera Queensland is in full flight. Whether it’s the date, or the news that this is something special, His Majesty’s Theatre is packed.

Director Sarah Giles has created a thought-provoking La Traviata. With a stunning set, lighting and costumes, she takes what could be an over-dramatic caricature of a courtesan in opulent Paris and turns it into one of the most moving, believable, love stories I’ve seen live on stage in any genre. 

I keep reaching for the tissues, from sadness and empathy, but also anger – it is difficult to see a woman treated so badly, especially through contemporary eyes. 

A distraught woman, her dress flimsy and worn, leans into a man's arms. He wraps her tightly, looking into the distance. They are Samantha Clarke and Paul O'Neill in La Traviata.
Samantha Clarke and Paul O’Neill play star-crossed lovers in ‘La Traviata’. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

I am captivated from the opening scene, when Violetta (Clarke) tries to sneak out of the Baron’s (a delightfully sleazy Mark Alderson) bedroom, gently wiping a cloth between her legs under her under garments. It’s a profoundly shocking moment that instantly endears women to her. 

In the closing moments, as she lies dying on a chaise longue in an empty room, having been forced to sell everything to maintain her relationship with the lovestruck Alfredo (a heartfelt Paul O’Neill), I am still wrestling with anger at her treatment. 

But Giles’ direction and Clarke’s portrayal never make us feel that Violetta is weak in any way. She is simply a victim of her time and its proliferating attitudes.

Under the baton of WA Opera Artistic Director Christopher van Tuinen, the orchestra, soloists and cast are full of passion and pathos. WASO shine, the tempi variations precise and stunning woodwind playing in myriad technical passages brilliantly executed, bringing Verdi’s incredibly rich, emotional, and evocative score to life. Seated near the stage the orchestra occasionally dominates the vocal lines of some cast members but in an opera where the music is so intrinsically part of the action, it doesn’t detract.

A woman in a beautiful golden gown sits on a bed in front of a large wall covered with a tree mural. She looks sad. Off to the right, a man in a white suit leans against the wall out of sight, singing. They are Samantha Clarke and Paul O'Neill in La Traviata.
The world keeps Violetta (Samantha Clarke) and Alfredo (Paul O’Neill) apart. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

But Clarke, from her opening lines, is the one who takes my breath away. Her creamy, clear powerful voice just gets better and better with every scene. Her first duet with Alfredo, “Un di Felice, eterea, sung through a wall as they fall in love, shows her remarkable control, intonation, and expressiveness. Her pianissimo echo phrases are so perfect she draws a gasp from a lady in my row. I’m sure the entire theatre has goosebumps. 

The optional high E-flat in “Sempre Libera at the end of the first scene was extraordinary (often sopranos don’t attempt it). Clarke, who studied at WAAPA and then in the UK before returning to Perth during Covid, is a relative newcomer to the world’s operatic stages. Yet her voice and stage presence are akin to a seasoned global diva. I could not take my eyes (or ears) off her.

I was so proud to see so many West Australian names – many young artists – in this exceptional cast. Each artist is thoughtfully and perfectly chosen, from Clarke and O’Neill as the leads to Fiona Campbell’s sexy sassy Flora and Lachlann Lawton as her buff love interest the Marchese, and many more. 

A group of women in gowns and a man in a suit are grouped together in a bedroom, looking towards a door in shock and horror. They are the cast of La Traviata
The production is rich with Western Australian talent. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

West Australian Opera has done a wonderful job giving audiences access to the best talent from around the world over the years. But to give a platform like this to a predominantly local cast, and for it to be such a huge success, really matters. 

I love hearing a great aria but, with this production of La Traviata, I truly fell in love with opera for the first time. Thank you, Verdi. Thank you, West Australian Opera. And thank you, Samantha Clarke!

The final two performances of La Traviata are at His Majesty’s Theatre tonight and 29 October.

Pictured top: Samantha Clarke is a revelation as Violetta, her voice and performance captivating. Photo: Clinton Bradbury

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the director of North Street Music – a creative production and artist development company. She is also the founder of Perth Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and has an MBA from UWA. She is a professional violist, entrepreneur, concert promoter and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

Past Articles

  • Masterful soloists lift the mood

    WASO’s latest program promises intensity but Bourby Webster is surprised by its sense of optimism – and fun. So much so, she could do it all again.

  • Sure hands touch the heart

    Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 60 years and this concert is no exception. Bourby Webster savours every moment. 

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