La Traviata, by Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders & Declan Greene) | Directed by Declan Greene

Belvoir | Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 20 September

In its May budget this year, the Federal Government announced that funding for the arts would be reduced by $105 million! Effectively, money would be taken from the Australia Council and distributed to the Minister’s preferred arts organisations, for example Opera Australia.

Add to this the boycotting of the 2014 Sydney Biennale, sponsored in part by Transfield  Services, which runs offshore detention centres, and you pretty much have the impetus/backstory for Sisters Grimm reimagined production of La Traviata.

Act one begins as a business presentation. LED boards on the three walls, usually used in opera to translate the libretto, here illuminate amounts of money as it is raised from sponsorship by major companies — just imagine — opera in jeans! It is a clever idea which sadly on this night lacked pace and enough humour to convey coherently the satire.

Act Two, however, is awesome. Set in Violetta’s country house outside Paris, Alfredo and Violetta are living together in rural bliss, and as you do in opera, they mime/sing of their happy life together. Marg Horwell’s set and costume design is the star here — sheep, fluffy clouds, colourful balls of flowers and bird cages all provide a montage of pastoral pleasure. It is absolutely hilarious and hysterically funny, until we find out that Violetta has to sell the horses, carriages and everything she owned to support their country lifestyle. Oh dear back to that nasty funding problem.

Ash Flanders’ and Declan Greene’s production strips Verdi’s opera down to its essence and juxtaposes the highbrow and lowbrow to further their point. Baritone, Michael Lewis, who has played Giorgio Germont before in La Traviata, does sing a little of Verdi, but in an unusual mode, and there is also an interesting solo cabaret from Emma Maye Gibson. The performers work hard, as do the audience, who, in the third act, are invited to participate by articulating their views, concerns and autobiographical anecdotes, which they do generously.

This is an ambitious and well intentioned production, but in such an intimate space the missed cues and awkward pauses suggest a project in progress. There are some clever ideas but they really need to be presented with greater cohesion and complexity to convey these very important concerns.

Images: Patrick Boland