Verdi’s La traviata is one of the surefire ticket bonanzas for opera companies. It is equally beloved by the opera aficionado and novice alike. One stunningly beautiful melody after another pours from the composer’s pen. In addition, the straightforward plot is easy to follow and the final scene will put a catch in the throat and tear in the eye of even the most hardened cynic. It is a great showpiece for a soprano, a choice debut role for a young tenor and a magnificent role for a mature baritone.
The Traviata at the Santa Fe Opera this summer is a revival of Laurent Pelly's abstract 2009 production and many opera fans know about it. So, it was not the surprise to most in the audience that it must have been back then. However, there were surprises aplenty to those of us who read about it, because even a long review couldn’t prepare you for all of the strange goings-on.
The stage is strewn with a cubist forest of boxes, large and small, which the cast must crawl over all evening. The palette is uniformly dark blue gray. In the second act, some of the larger boxes have open lids, which have white fluffy clouds projected on them. Later, at Flora’s party, the boxes are turned into a disco with mirrored walls on the boxes and an extravagant chandelier. Worse, Violetta’s bed is the top of one of the boxes, covered only by a white sheet.
We don’t need the elaborate sets that mimic the era, although that makes for a beautiful stage picture. We don’t even need realism per se. However, we do need a sense of place so as to follow the action. At the very least, we need to know when we are indoors or outside, in a boudoir or a ballroom.
Pelly’s costumes are a mishmash of eras as well, adding to the confusion. We first see Violetta in a very red, full-skirted evening gown, open to the waist in the front, to show a complete set of legs. It is strapless to feature a modern day red tattoo on her right shoulder. Unfortunately, I was not close enough to say for sure what it is, but it looked like the red heart pierced by a dagger that graces the windows of many a dingy tattoo parlor. Perhaps it was something else, but it was very red and prominent and something that the elegant Violetta would certainly eschew. Alfredo spends the second act in a shirt and pants that he could have worn to the theater. His father, Germont, is in a frock coat with a top hat that is a throwback to more standard productions.
This production also confuses the concept of a courtesan with a highly paid prostitute. For one thing, a courtesan is on a long term lease and is as respectable, in her own way, as the grand ladies who are the wives of their lovers. This production has Violetta rolling around on the floor with Alfredo within hours of meeting him and right in front of her Baron. Even if she were a modern woman seeing a married man, such conduct is unthinkable and turns her into a floozy. Others, at her first act party, act in a similarly vulgar way. You would think this was set in modern day Hollywood.
Violetta was based on a real courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who was the toast of Paris until her death from tuberculosis in 1847 at the age of 23. Her salon was filed with the ne plus ultra of society. She was the mistress of Alexander Dumas, who immortalized her in his book La Dame aux Camélias. Reportedly, she left him for none other than Franz Liszt.
Soprano Brenda Rae looks great as this nouveau Violetta and delivers an excellent performance of the role. Verdi wrote this part for three different kinds of soprano voices with a coloratura in the first act and the voice veering more to the lyric and spinto as the opera progresses. Many legendary Violettas had one weaker act but made up for that in all of the others. Rae is a surprise in that she is relatively even throughout. Her sempre libera in the first act is a flurry of perfectly placed high C and even an interpolated (but frequently expected) high E-flat at the end. She spins a lovely pianissimo in the last act with addio del passato, which floats to every inch of the open-air theater.
Michael Fabiano shows a young and fresh tenor voice as Alfredo, the country bumpkin on his first trip to Paris who is so clueless that he falls in love with the courtesan of the Baron. This fact must have been his motivation for his character. While he sings with some passion, he stands passively by as events swirl around him. Even his outburst at Flora’s party seems more like an overgrown child throwing a tantrum.
Speaking of Flora’s party, this is where an inexcusable directorial decision occurrs.
Violetta has left Alfredo at his father’s urging and is back with the Baron. She is not the kind of girl Germont wants in the family. Alfrado confronts her at Flora’s. She had been selling things secretly to support their love nest. (He just thought that it was all free, you suppose). He throws his gambling winnings at her, saying that he was paying her back. Well, throwing money at a famous courtesan in front of all her friends is the ultimate insult. It says that she is nothing but a common whore. She faints.
So far so good. But, there she lies—on the floor—passed out from the shame. No one, not even her best friend Flora, goes to attend to her. She just lies there during the whole ensemble. Perhaps the director thought that it was a moment frozen in time. But here she is at a party with all of her best friends around, her old circle, and no one comforts her or at least sees if she hit her head. You want to shout out, like a character in a Vonnegut novel, “For God’s sake, somebody see if Violetta is all right!”
British baritone Roland Wood certainly looks the part of Germont, father to the passively aggressive Alfredo. At his entrance, he has noble bearing and gravitas. As the scene with Violetta progresses, we learn that all that bearing comes from a wooden acting style that eschews showing any emotion or even normal human movement. Vocally, he displays a magnificent, deep and rich baritone. Unfortunately, he sings with the voice so far back in his placement that it sound like it is coming from the bottom of a well. In another misstep, he is in such a hurry to get away from Violetta in act two that he leaves while she is still talking. He does stop but she has to go to him in order to finish the scene. The daughterly hug the distraught woman begs him for is delivered in such a perfunctory manner that we begin to see why Alfredo is such a mess. Perhaps this is all planned this way.
British conductor Leo Hussain does a fine job for the most part. His biggest sin is how much he enjoys conducting the opera. He luxuriates in ritards early on and, by the time the opera is finished, they turn into allargando molto. While this über-romantic and weepy style works well on occasion, such as the clarinet solo under Violetta’s reading of a letter from the prig Germont, it too often brings the opera to a stop or gives a feeling of moving in slow motion.
The final act is the most effective. Rebecca Witty is an attentive Annina, Violetta’s loyal chamber maid. Rae is vocally at her best and she is entrancing from start to finish. You really believe that she was about to expire at any moment and her perfectly focused, superb and spinning soft singing gives the feeling that it was all she could muster. Too bad she was lying on a box. A pair of dancers who entered in the background during the off stage chorus of revelers might have been a figment of her imagination, but we didn’t see her enjoying her conjuration. Perhaps they were a vignette for the audience’s enlightenment as to what is going on outside.
Some operas that defy an overlay of directorial comment and Traviata is one of them. Verdi has supplied all of the emotion and subtext required in his wondrous score. You can move it around in time or location, but you cannot change the nature of the characters. You can no more change Violetta from being a cortigiane oneste to a loose party girl than you can change that diva Tosca into a rock star. A little research on the history of the courtesans on the level of Violetta would have helped. At least, this might have gotten rid of the cackle of a laugh that she squawks when we first see her. Violetta would have never done such a thing.
◊ Other reviews from the 2013 Santa Fe Opera season: