Dallas — It was La traviata weekend for Texans. The Dallas Opera opened its production of the Verdi classic in what is the perfect opera venue, the Winspear Opera House; and the Houston Grand Opera opened another one but, no thanks to Hurricane Harvey, in a terrible place for opera: a back corner the George Brown Convention Center. In addition to the contrasting locations, the two were quite different tempo-wise. The Dallas production was lickity-split while the one in Houston was, well, not. This review is about Dallas. (Reviews from the opening weekend in Houston, which also included Julius Caesar, to come.)
First, this production restored some of the traditional cuts. Many of these are short and contain some quite delightful music. You have to wonder why these passages, some no more than a handful of measures, are usually left out. It can’t be for time since Traviata is not excessively long. One passage that is never heard is the cabaletta for the tenor in the second act. Musically, it is weak but dramatically, it is important. It allows us to see Alfredo’s immature anger grow into the uncontrollable fury that will soon drive him to foolish acts.
There are four additional takeaways from the Dallas Traviata: brisk tempi, great singing, busy staging and some wooden acting.
Conductor Carlo Montanaro delivered a clean and crisp performance on opening night, but many of the tempi were too fast. Not by much mind you, but enough to be noticeable. Still, he inspired the Dallas Opera Orchestra and those on the stage to deliver some fine music-making. Most of the time, his fleet-footed tempi may have raised an eyebrow, but they worked well enough and were consistently conceptualized. However, there were times when the ensemble suffered as he pushed slightly ahead of the singers.
Overall, the best aspect of his conducting is his sure-footed approach to musical ideas, revealing a lot of usually glossed over details and showering some sensitive rubato on even the shortest of phrases.
Opera is all about voices and the three main leads, and all the secondary roles for that matter, have excellent helpings of the vocal abilities required by these taxing roles.
The opera depends on a Violetta capable of being three contrasting voice types. She is a coloratura in the first act, a lyric in the third act (or Act Two, Scene Two), and a spinto in the second act confrontation with Alfredo’s father and the final act death scene. Georgia Jarman is certainly up to the challenge and she delivers a beautifully sung Violetta. Dramatically, she was at her best in the last act although her portrayal of a dying soprano was slightly exaggerated.
As the cluelessly romantic Alfredo, tenor René Barbera has a brilliant Italian sound with secure high notes. He popped out a stunning high C at the end of the usually cut second-act cabaletta. But his believability was limited by his lack of physicality and rudimentary acting abilities that harken back to a pre-Callas era. Most of his singing was delivered facing directly out to the audience. Also, he was missing the required raw sex appeal that would cause Violetta to toss caution to the wind and run off with him to a secret love nest.
As Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s distraught father, Vladislav Sulimsky’s dark baritone, while quite beautiful, was the only non-Italianate voice in the cast. However, his inadequate thespian capabilities worked to his advantage to create the role. He came off as a tightly wound, hopelessly old-fashioned and pompous man with a limited worldview.
The others in the cast also have excellent voices and most have better dramatic instincts. Rachel Sterrenberg is excellent as Violetta’s faithful maid Annina, Dale Travis displays a gorgeous bass-baritone voice (a future Germont) as the Baron Douphol, Abigail Levis adds some fun as a ditsy Flora, Brenton Ryan (a future Alfredo) creates a fresh-faced and youthful Gastone, Daniel Armstrong does a fine job as the Marquis D'Obigny, and Ryan Kuster (another beautiful bass-baritone) is believable as the stiffly professional Doctor Grenvil.
Stage director Stefania Panighini’s busy direction has some odd touches. For example, there is a young female in white that seems to be stalking Violetta. Who is she? Maybe the embodiment of the youthful Violetta’s happier past? Maybe her dreams of unrealized aspiration? Violetta doesn’t appear to notice her and this dramatic addition only served to confuse the audience. Is she real or an apparition?
Another misfire is Germont being a little handsy with Violetta as he unthinkingly ruins her life. It is especially irritating in our current era of a heightened clarity about sexual harassment. Speaking of which, some of the women in both party scenes lack the dignity you usually associate with a courtesan, which is a long-term, and usually publically acknowledged, contract for feminine favors.
John de los Santos’ choreography for the entertainment scene at Flora’s party adds some sexual overtones to the ballet that are missing from the two lovers.
Desmond Heeley’s elaborate fin de siècle costumes and sets were deigned for Chicago’s Lyric Opera and present a visual feast. Alan Burrett’s lighting brings some realism to the scenic folderol.
As always, in the able hands of chorus master Alexander Rom, the chorus shines as brightly as any of the stars.
This is a beautifully sung and elaborately decorated Traviata. It may not be the three-hanky realization you might expect, but Violetta’s tragically short life is as moving as ever.