Romantic, Tragic, Beautiful - Something for Everyone
(Los Angeles, Calif., May 21, 2009) Guiseppe Verdi's La Traviata, the last production of the 2008 - 09 season, opened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion tonight. The story: Amidst the glittery world of parties, gambling and illicit liaisons, Violetta, a beautiful courtesan, finds ideal love with her naive suitor Alfredo. But she finds her happiness at odds with the rigid will of Alfredo's father Giorgio, and realizes harsh consequences for her decadent lifestyle.
Music scholars theorize that Verdi's own scandalous love affair with Giuseppina Strepponi, the mother of two illegitimate children from a previous attachment, may have prompted his desire to depict a loving relationship unjustly denounced by a self-righteous society. Verdi intended to use contemporary settings for the first production and have the cast in everyday clothes, not costumes. But La Traviata's representation of a contemporary 19th-century courtesan was so unprecedented that the managers of Venice's Teatro La Fenice, which premiered the opera in 1853, feared public outcry and insisted that the work be produced in historical settings and costumes of the early 1700s. (For similar reasons, Verdi set his Un Ballo in Maschera [A Masked Ball] in colonial Boston, an era and place that have nothing whatever to do with its story about a cuckolded king.)
La Traviata (meaning, "The Fallen One") is one of the most beloved of Verdi's emotionally affecting operas. " La Traviata has become one of our most popular productions, said opera general director Plácido Domingo, and I am very much looking forward to this revival featuring two magnificent Violettas: Marina Poplavskaya, making her LA Opera debut after acclaimed appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and Salzburg Festival, and Elizabeth Futral, a Company favorite whose last appearance here was as Violetta in June 2006. [The two sopranos will alternate in the role during the run.] I also welcome Grant Gershon, who has been our Associate Conductor and Chorus Master for two seasons, to the pit for his LA Opera debut as conductor." (Gershon also directs the superb LA Master Chorale, which performs regularly at Disney Hall.)
Georja: This lavish production delivers Verdi's beautiful music, the story, the characters and the set in a wonderful synchronicity that is appealing and accessible. After having watched the surrealistic productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure (see our reviews in LA Splash), for all their marvel and invention, it is wonderful to be back in the embrace of Marta Domingo's traditional and extremely effective direction, Giovanni Agostinucci's magnificent and lush costumes and designs, and Daniel Ordower's fabulous lighting.
Gerald: This is a five-hankie romantic opera, crafted to fit the proscenium stage and all the classic formulas, intended in its day as shameless commercialism, and today's audiences are no less receptive. Verdi's music combines carnival themes in the tradition of Rossini with the ballroom swirls of the elegant Viennese waltzes.
Georja: The stagecraft is an integral part of opera: It's what separates it from a concert performance. Especially effective in this production are the gorgeous white and gold gowns of the first act of innocent budding love, the relaxed and elegant country house of happy days yet set with the winter light and trees hovering in the background, the unbelievable palette of red in the passionate and charged casino scene (at first sight eliciting gasps from the audience), and ending with the oh-so-simple lone bed with delicate white bedsheets hanging in the large empty room. In the final scene, Violetta is barely visible in her bed, the dim and evolving light peeking through the windows - at one point the tops of the fiesta floats parading by and out of reach.
Gerald: Even though the story of this opera was considered scandalous in its time, its plot and musical forms were standards. The beautiful but consumptive heroine is a highly paid prostitute, an aristo's woman referred to at that time as a demi-mondaine, to which a trophy wife might be the closest equivalent in our society. Her tragic flaw is that she permits herself to fall in love with an ambitious young man who can't afford her - or her scandalous reputation. It will all end badly, but their love will burn white-hot even as it flames out.
Georja: The settings, costume, and also the bodily movements of the characters enhanced the story - especially in the case of the lead, Violetta, as played by Marina Poplavskaya. Her voice is strong, angelic, lyrical, vibrant, well toned, and delightful. It is not dramatic. That is to say, the voice alone does not convey the message of the story in my opinion. It seems almost counter to the action. In Act I Violetta is having a sinking spell and her actions and the actions of others all indicate she is nearly passed out. Yet her voice remains strong, angelic, and lyrical with no sign of weakness. Likewise, throughout the piece, her voice does not falter from its lofty magnificence even when the character does. And yet the emotion of the story comes through. You can definitely be involved with the story and be swept up. In the final scene, Ms. Poplavskaya compensates for the lack of drama in her voice with her lithe body as she does a nearly impossible back bend into death. It is kind of the opposite of Luciano Pavarotti, who could convey deep emotions with his voice and yet seemed rather wooden on stage.
Gerald: We have the recording of Joan Sutherland as Violetta to Pavarotti's Massimo. To my ear, Sutherland's powerful voice was strident and harsh. Poplavskaya has that power, but she knows how to soften it, how to be delicate when vulnerability is called for. We should mention that Elizabeth Futral, who sings Violetta in some performances, is also a first-rate soprano. We saw her in the role in the L.A. 2006 production, and as I recall she was wonderful, with a kind of movie-leading-lady loveliness.
Georja: Massimo Giordano playing Alfredo is hunky and lovely to watch. His voice is pleasant and seems to open up more as the story proceeds. In the first scene, he seems a bit weak next to the vital force of Violetta. That does match his character's innocence and insecurity in the beginning and does flourish more in the succeeding acts. And still it feels as though Mr. Giordano's solid technique and his youth have room to be expanded, strengthened and opened up even more as his career develops. I will be looking forward to seeing if this is true in the future.
Gerald: Alexey Dolgov will sing Massimo for some performances, but we've not heard him. And Stephen Powell will alternate the role of Giorgio. So no doubt there's quite a mix of character interpretations and performance styles to come in this run.
Georja: Verdi's music could really carry you away by itself. The gorgeous Italian tones are a joy to hear. As an Italian speaker I noticed the English translation in the supertitles does not always convey the succinctness of the original Italian. The gorgeous first act duets of Violetta and Alfredo describe love as a "delicious cross," which conveys both the pain and joy of love. There is no really equivalent expression in English. Add to that Verdi's masterful harmonies and ability to titillate, haunt and bring sadness. This is all perfectly delivered by the top-of-the-line LA Opera orchestra and chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon. It will put you in an altered state. (Gershon receives five stars for his debut orchestral conducting.) The duets in the last act with Violetta, Alfredo and at times with Giorgio, Alfredo's father (played by Andrzej Dobber) are absolutely exquisite.
Gerald: I was also really pleased to see Gershon take the baton. He deserves enormous credit for the consistently outstanding work of the opera chorus, as well as the Master Chorale, year after year. The divas come and go, specializing in the roles they reprise in major cities all over the world. But the resident performers of LA Opera Company - its chorus, dancers, and orchestra - are our own world-class treasure.
Georja: Another highlight is the masterful and sassy flamenco dancing which takes place in the casino scene and serves to heighten the inflamed emotions and jealousy. It features the dancing of Timo Nunez, who has been acclaimed as "America's number one flamenco dancer."
Gerald: There's lots of dancing, including a throng of gypsy-girl hotties descending the stairs in the same ballroom scene. Praise to choreographer Kitty McNamee for those numbers.
Georja: LA Opera's La Traviata is a real crowd-pleaser. This great opera can sweep up in its charm both a beginner and a seasoned fan, and perhaps make both fall in love.
Gerald: Yes, if the German operas of this season are sauerbraten and spaetzles, this delightful Verdi standby is dessert, a lovely little slice of Italian tiramisu to finish off an impressive season.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos by Robert Millar
Los Angeles Opera
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LA Opera Verdi's La Traviata
Thursday May 21, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday May 27, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Saturday May 30, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday June 3, 2009 1:00 p.m.
Saturday June 6, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday June 10, 2009 7:30 p.m.
Sunday June 14, 2009 2:00 p.m.
Sunday June 21, 2009 2:00 p.m.