by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
(OPENING NIGHT CAST)
January 14 (thru 1/28)
Alexander Dumas fils was only 23 years old when he wrote La Dame aux Camélias, the novel Verdi adapted as La Traviata. Dumas' passionate love affair with a Parisian courtesan inspired one of the best versions of the classic prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold story. Camille, the 'lady of the camellias' (known for wearing a red camellia when she had her period and a white camellia when she was available) becomes Violetta in the opera - a brilliant beauty at the top of the 'demi-monde,' the shadow world of high society where wealth and sexual freedom reign. Only an idealistic youth like Dumas could have written this story about an idealistic youth, Alfredo, who falls in love with the least appropriate girl possible, and persuades her to give up the high life to live with him in pastoral contentment in the country.
It was still possible in Dumas' Paris of 1847, and Verdi's Italy of 1853 to disgrace your family by shacking up with a prostitute. The story turns on Alfredo's father, Germont, persuading Violetta to leave his son so that his marriageable daughter can find a respectable husband. Violetta is heart-broken, but generously abandons Alfredo at Germont's request. Alfredo thinks she's reverted to her old courtesan ways and, in a fabulously dramatic scene, invades a rowdy masquerade party where Violetta has taken up with a rich Count. The reckless, disillusioned Alfredo wins a stack of money at the faro table and humiliates Violetta by throwing it in her face in front of her snooty friends. He doesn't know, and finds out too late, that Violetta has saved his family from disgrace, and is dying from tuberculosis. Her death scene is the entire third act of 'La Traviata' - a soprano's dream of lingering, languishing, passionate death in the arms of her distraught lover.
Dumas' extravagant tale makes the reader a voyeur, seeing the lives of courtesans in luxurious brothels, at lavish parties, and among vicious, gossiping aristocrats. Verdi's music exploits every opportunity Dumas and the librettist Francesco Maria Piave give him to immerse the audience in this beautiful, savage world. Every character has at least one show-stopping aria, and most have two or three. The chorus provides a busy backdrop to this intriguing world first as scandal-mongering party-goers and then, in their biggest scene, as gypsies and picadors at the masquerade party where Alfredo has his meltdown.
So it is with a mixture of delight and disappointment that I report on Seattle Opera's new production of La Traviata, The delight is in hearing this thrilling, passionate music sung by a cast of brilliant principals and conducted beautifully by Stefano Ranzani. The disappointment is in the minimalist production, originally created by Peter Konwitschny for English National Opera and Opera Graz, that strips this extravagant setting so bare that I almost felt myself to be at a concert performance rather than a fully produced version of the opera. And I might have been better off at a concert performance rather than the strangely off-kilter interpretation that Konwitschny has brought to Seattle.
First the good news - and I hope this will be enough for you to attend and support the rising young opera stars who sang their roles to perfection. Corinne Winters, as Violetta, brought her character to life with a rich, commanding soprano that gripped the audience from the first moment to the last. Her 'Sempre libera' - though burdened with some absurd blocking that called for her to stand on a chair and fall off in a rather alarming plunge - shone through the starkness of the production to conjure up the demi-monde with her youth, beauty, lush voice, and passionate performance. She will be singing Violetta in San Diego and Covent Garden this year - more evidence, if you need it, that this memorable singer is in her perfect role.
Joshua Dennis, as Alfredo, had his work cut out for him in the Konwitschny version, in which he was presented as a dorky nerd in a baggy sweater rather than the ardent, dashing lover Dumas created and Verdi animated with fervent tenor arias. Nevertheless, his clear, warm voice created a confident foundation for Violetta's pyrotechnics. In a more sympathetic production he might have been pyrotechnical himself - but it's hard to be ardent in droopy corduroys and coke-bottle glasses. His brindisi - the drinking song 'Libiamo' - was beautifully sung, but impossible to deliver with the rousing abandon suggested in the score when Alfredo is characterized as a bookworm and made to sing from a textbook like a kid at the grown-up's party. Kudos to Dennis for being a good sport. I have no doubt he is as compelling in a full-on production of La Traviata as his fortunate fellow-tenors are in productions faithful to the spirit of the story.
The third big role in La Traviata is Germont, the father who persuades Violetta to leave Alfredo in one heart-rending showstopper, and then persuades Alfredo to come home in another heart-rending showstopper. Every baritone in the world sings these two pieces in competitions and concerts, and every opera lover anticipates Germont's appearance in Act Two with hopeful longing. Weston Hurt has the chops to do this role with the warmth and poignancy required, and he had deeply satisfying moments, especially in 'Di Provenza il mar.' But in the aria/duet with Violetta, 'Pura sicomme un angelo,' when he explains that his daughter can't marry if there is a courtesan in the family, Hurt is burdened with a directorial interpolation that really distorts the forward movement of the opera, and which casts Germont in an unnecessarily ambiguous light. As he sings of his angelic daughter, a young girl of about ten or twelve suddenly appears, as though he had dragged her along as a prop to manipulate Violetta. The child's presence muddies the action since she isn't of marriageable age, and distracts from the intensity of the engagement between father and courtesan. At one point Germont even flings his daughter to the ground, completely shattering the essential idea that Germont is compassionate and rational. The whole scene was a mess. I don't know how any performer could act his way out of it, though Hurt did the best one could, I suppose, under the circumstances. The blame is on the director, not the singer who is duty-bound to interpret the director's vision, even when it overshadows the clear intentions of the composer and librettist.
So, needless to say, I was not in love with Peter Konwitschny's direction and even less in love with Johannes Leiacker's production design, which consisted of a tedious number of red curtains being pulled aside, and two straight-back chairs. Presumably, in a setting so sparse, the visual interest is invested in the costumes and hand props, like a Shakespeare play at the Globe when scrims and prosceniums had not been invented yet. But no, that was not part of this vision. The most colorful moment in the opera, the Gypsy and Picador scene full of tambourines, flamenco dresses and matador outfits, was cut from this production. Everyone was in black, except for the dun and brown of Alfredo's droopy drawers, and Violetta's red dress and, later, white jeans. Her wig color for no apparent reason went from black in Part 1 (no intermission, so no acts) to white in Part 2 to red in Part 3. I hope Konwitschny is not so simple as to think 'black wig = bad girl, white wig = good girl'. Would that mean 'red wig = confused girl'? If that was his intention, then I needed a red wig as I left the theater.
While it's true that Dumas and Verdi were writing a contemporary story (which, for us, has become historical) La Traviata does not benefit much from being brought into the present time. Ever since birth control there is very little disgrace associated with sexual freedom, so the premise is weakened by updating. On the other hand, this is the era of unbridled capitalism, and we love to read and stream about the lifestyles of the rich and famous - so why update the lavish Parisian demi-monde with a set consisting of two chairs and endless curtains that look exactly alike?
The Konwitschny version missed the mark for me on every level, and I felt sorry for my opera buddy, who had never seen La Traviata before. He clapped with enthusiasm after every aria and genuinely loved the performances, but he still hasn't seen a proper production. One longs for Franco Zefferelli and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Seattle opera-goers are neither stuck in the past nor old biddies who need the conventional to be happy. We are folks who know an inexpensive, reductive production when we see one. Bravo to the wonderful singers who made even this production a show worth seeing.
La Traviata is playing at McCaw Hall through January 28.
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