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Understudy Claire Egan makes Violetta her own in La Traviata at Longborough

Claire Egan, left, excelled as she stepped into the role of Violetta after the original singer pulled out. Above, an imaginative Hollywood setting lent La Traviata at Longborough Festival Opera an authentic context.
Claire Egan, left, excelled as she stepped into the role of Violetta after the original singer pulled out. Above, an imaginative Hollywood setting lent La Traviata at Longborough Festival Opera an authentic context.

Preston Witts reviews La Traviata, and catches up with soprano Claire Egan

UNDERSTUDIES rarely get the opportunity to have their names in bright lights, but a sequence of mishaps at Longborough Festival Opera has given soprano Claire Egan a starring role in one of the most famous musical dramas in the repertoire.

She had been acting as the ‘cover’ — as an understudy is known in opera — for the demanding role of Violetta Valéry in the current production of Verdi’s La Traviata, the second of the four operas being staged at Longborough during the festival’s 2018 season.

However, Paula Sides, the American singer who was scheduled for the part (and whose name and biography were printed in the official programme), was suddenly discovered to have “unavoidable clashes with the rehearsal schedule” that Longborough’s production team had not been aware of beforehand. As a result she had to pull out.

A Longborough spokesman said: “We had to source an alternative Violetta, and fortunately found Anna Patalong. However, Anna had her own commitments which meant that our cover Claire Egan had to perform the first night and will perform on the last night too.”

Longborough should be thinking itself lucky that it has a stand-in of the quality of Claire.

Her performance on the first night last Saturday was magnificent and would have graced the stage of any opera house in the world. She looked ravishing, sounded superb and acted with a fluency that must have brought great delight to director Daisy Evans and conductor Thomas Blunt. It certainly brought delight to the opera-goers themselves, who gave her — and the rest of the cast — a thunderous ovation from the packed auditorium.

The fact of the matter is that Claire, a 34-year-old New Zealander who lives in London, is not even a full-time professional singer (though she would very much like to be one). She spends part of her time as a personal assistant at a small, modern art gallery in the capital.

On Monday, after her first-night success, I spoke to Claire and asked her how it all went from her point of view.

“It was a strange situation,” she said. “The original person had double booked. I had a couple of rehearsals three weeks ago and came on board two and a half weeks ago. I had two rehearsals in the studio and one rehearsal with the orchestra, but only for the first half of the opera, not the second, which was a bit scary!”

Meanwhile, Longborough had brought Anna Patalong in as the replacement for Paula Sides.

Claire said: “Anna was in rehearsal as well. I watched every rehearsal like a hawk! She is quite well known and I am much of an unknown. It was a fabulous opportunity for me. I loved every moment.”

Claire is no stranger to the role. “I had sung highlights from the opera during a tour of 22 schools, so I knew the story pretty well,” she said. “But this was my first time with an orchestra — and it was thrilling.”

She said the director and conductor were “very kind and gentle people”. “Daisy was very helpful, and Tom made me feel very calm about doing it and said “Just sing it”. It’s been a nice experience. The whole team have been great. Daisy sees everything and has an eye for detail and knows exactly what she wants to achieve. I’m sure she’ll have a big career.”

Claire fitted the part of Violetta perfectly as conceived by her director — the ‘fallen woman’ in the mould of Marilyn Monroe, set in the context of the Hollywood of 1959, the year of Marilyn’s great success as Sugar Kane in the brilliant comedy Some Like It Hot.

The atmosphere on the ‘film set’ is realistic, with the director (Eddie Wade as Barone Douphol) barking his orders to the ‘cast’ and ‘crew’. And Claire is equally realistic in her portrayal of the femme fatale, whose demeanour can so quickly swing from lofty hauteur to child-like vulnerability. And what one has to remember is that Violetta is ‘in performance’ on stage for most of the opera.

The rest of the characters in the production — particularly tenor Peter Gijsbertsen as Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s suitor and baritone Mark Stone as Georgio Germont, Alfredo’s father — provide admirable support. And mention must also be made of designer Loren Elstein’s authentic set and the costumes that give the whole endeavour an additional blast of colour. In that context the role of lighting designer Jake Wiltshire is another key to the production’s success.

Next up at LFO is Richard Strauss’s opera, Aradne auf Naxos, starts on Friday, 13th July, and runs until Saturday, 21st July. From Saturday, 28th July, to Thursday, 2nd August, the final production will be L’incoronazione d Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi.

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