OPERA REVIEW: ‘LA TRAVIATA’

New production of ‘La Traviata’ shines in musical matters

By Peter Jacobi

 

A couple of days before I attended last weekend’s two performances of “La Traviata” at the Indiana University Musical Arts Center, I put my DVD/VCR player to use. First, I put on “Camille,” the 1936 film version of Alexander Dumas’ story, with Greta Garbo as the doomed courtesan. I focused on the critical scene in which Camille, at the insistence of her lover Armand’s father, agrees to sacrifice love and self for the good name of his family. I then turned to the same scene from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” as sung by Teresa Stratas.

Garbo, incandescent, forfeited Camille’s future with quiet despair; Lionel Barrymore, as Armand’s father, was persuasive arguing for the breakup. Their encounter was worth seeing. As the renamed heroine in the opera, as Violetta, Stratas, with haunted look and manner, gave tragic dimension to her portrayal, while baritone Cornell MacNeil effectively made the father’s case for that breakup.

Hands down, Stratas and MacNeil won out. They had Verdi at their side. Even when realized by the famed Garbo and Barrymore, the spoken dialogue pales when pitted against so powerful a score as Verdi bequeathed to “La Traviata.” All of which is to argue that a reviewer’s reaction to a production of the opera, in my view, should be focused, first and foremost, on the music and the music drama.

And in matters musical, the current production, which also happens to boast a new physical setting, shines.  Verdi has been done proud. The reason begins with music director Joseph Rescigno, who obviously loves the opera and has expressed that love in sensitive preparation of the Concert Orchestra and all those singing on stage; the orchestra sounded velvety and voluptuous. It begins with an involved chorus, so effectively trained by chorus master Walter Huff. It begins with two casts, on the whole very well selected, that wrapped themselves in their assignments and made the most of their opportunities.  It begins also with stage director Jeffrey Buchman, who guided the singers as actors, who used the music and the dramatic content to help them find and develop meaningful stage personalities.

At the critical center of any “Traviata” performance is the soprano who portrays Violetta. As a courtesan, she needs to be attractive; Shannon Love, Friday’s Violetta, and Lacy Sauter, Saturday’s, are.  As tragic figure, Violetta must show strength and fragility, be self-motivated and yet fate-driven, reflect courage and victimization, struggle for life and accept death. Both Love and Sauter did all that in well-thought-out characterizations.

Vocally, both gave the role full dosages of drama: Love with a smaller instrument but unanticipated and fortuitous inflections along with touching subtleties, Sauter with an impressively voluminous soprano fully equipped to belt at moments of high drama but one that she occasionally sent into overdrive.

Two pretty solid lyric tenors gave their all as Violetta’s beloved Alfredo: Andrew Maughan on Friday and Derrek Stark on Saturday. The fine young baritone Joshua Conyers contributed dignity and solemnity to the role of Alfred’s perhaps justly motivated but trouble-making father. Saturday’s equivalent was IU Jacobs School of Music alum Daniel Narducci, bringing with him the welcome authority of experience.

The new sets and costumes, by Cameron Anderson and Linda Pisano, blur the story’s time and place, meaning the opera does not unfold in its usual 19th century setting, but also not today. The backdrops are either abstract washes or green suggestions of the outdoors.The props and furniture are minimal, held to the necessary.

Designer Anderson and director Buchman had in mind a production that made of Violetta a symbol for a class of women who may be adored for their beauty but are outcasts, too, pawns of a cruel and hypocritical male-dominated society.  The point is driven home (1) with a butterfly metaphor, a beautiful but fragile insect designed to be captured by Alfredo as a boy, a beautiful Violetta captured by societal injustice as she departs this Earth; (2) with four bewigged women (are they apparitions?) that often shadow Violetta; (3) with four women as human chandeliers that during the second act party scene hang precipitously and puzzlingly from the ceiling, and (4) with glass walls that separate Violetta from all who remain to love her as she dies.

Little of that particularly bothered me, and, as viewer, I benefited from a few striking images. But I question the need for an added layer of meaning in a story and opera so basic in emotional content and so highly dramatic musically.  Does Verdi really need or gain from the treatment?

A few more plaudits: to the supporting casts; to the 10 dancers and their choreographer, Rosa Mercedes, and how successfully they used a too-narrow space; to Patrick Mero for his lighting design; to Daniela Siena, the diction coach and author of supertitles.

 

© Herald Times 2014

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