When it comes to beautiful operas, one gorgeous tune after another, it is hard to beat Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata. It also excels at other operatic traditions such as a three-hanky story of love gone wrong and a soprano dying of consumption. On Friday, The Dallas Opera rolled out a spectacular production of the opera that ably achieves all of the composer's goals. It is beautifully sung, well-acted and looks magnificent.
Any production of Traviata lives and dies at the hands of the soprano. It is an impossible role to cast in that Verdi actually asks for three different voice types in each act. Act one requires a coloratura, both scenes in act two need a lyric, and the last act needs a spinto. I am not on the side of commentators that look to the past for unsurpassed Violettas, like Maria Callas, to use as a yardstick. Even she was not flawless in every performance. At the Winspear Opera House, Myrtò Papatanasiu (another Greek soprano) comes as close to filling the bill as you are likely to find anywhere.
Papatanasiu is marvelous in two of the three acts. Vocally, she is at her weakest in the first act. For some reason, she lets her high "C" spread, when the notes right below it stay perfectly in line, and her attempt at the high E flat at the end of the first act aria (Sempre Libera) is ill-advised. But, from then on, she is in her vocal realm and turns in a memorable performance. She is able to float a spinning pianissimo in one phrase (such as in Addio del passato) and then summon a full-throated spinto sound in the big dramatic moments (such as in Grand Dio! Morir si giovani)—all within moments of each other in act three.
As an actor, she is believable throughout, without overplaying the dignified victim or the diseased-ravaged and near-death shell of a person she becomes at the end. Throughout the changing circumstances of Violetta's life, Papatanasiu maintains an overlay of noble dignity to the physical beauty that made her the most famous courtesan in Paris. It is easy to see why both the naive Alfredo and the sophisticated Baron Douphol are dazzled.
As Violetta's clueless lover, Alfredo, who doesn't understand why his living with a courtesan would bother his conservative father, James Valenti skillfully portrays a young man who has just recently tipped over from what must have been a prolonged adolescence into manhood. He has a bright and well-produced tenor voice that he never once pushed beyond its capabilities, and a respect for the composer's carefully written dynamics. This production includes the rarely heard cabaletta to his second act aria. It is apparent why it is usually cut. Musically, it is not up to the standards of the rest of the opera and it stops the action for an "aria," à la Rossini, which doesn't happen anywhere else in the score.
Laurent Naouri, as Alfredo's conflicted father Germont, possesses a rich baritone voice that effortlessly negotiates Verdi's remarkable demands. It is impossible to determine whether he is portraying the elder Germont as stiff, or whether he is just stiff on stage, by this one appearance. But whatever the case may be, his is an exceptional baritone voice; dark without being swallowed and resonant without being pulled into artificial territory.
There are no secondary roles in Traviata. Without excellent singing actors in all of the supporting roles, even the greatest Violetta that ever graced the stage couldn't pull this opera off unaided. Amanda Crider makes a sympatric, if a little ditsy, Flora (Violetta's best friend and fellow courtesan). Tim Mix is a sympathetic, yet severe Baron. Ethan Herschenfeld is a dignified Doctor, giving Violetta some kind words when he knows that she is dying. Susan Nicely is touching as Violetta's loyal maid. Aaron Blake impresses as Gaston.
The Italian conductor, Marco Guidarini, holds everything together and demonstrates both a knowledge of the score and generally has control over the stage and orchestra. Many tempi were too fast on Friday; most noticeable was the card-playing scene at Flora's party, but he gave his singers leeway to interpret the music, which is the most important quality of an opera conductor. Some details, such as the scattershot pizzicati in the last act prelude, may have been the result of a lack of rehearsal, but the conductor must take the ultimate responsibility.
Production designer Allan Charles Klein creates a hyper-realistic storybook set, and Victorian period costumes on a grand scale. Violetta's gowns are stunning. The back of the stage is surrounded by a semicircle of floor-to-ceiling panels that serve as doors, windows, archways or walls as the situation demands. Act two is dominated by an immense garden trellis covered in ancient wisteria. Flora's party scene, all blazing reds, got as much applause when the curtain went up as any of the arias. Part of that also has to do with the fantastical costumes. Klein took the suggestion that the party is a masquerade and runs with it, especially with the women. Following a vaguely Asian theme, there is everything from a glorious geisha to a Turandot lookalike.
The last act set has a bed, but it doesn't dominate the room, as is so often the case. While the bed is lit by a spotlight, the rest of the furnishings are gloomy and covered with shrouds. It looks as if Violetta's surroundings have already died years before her. The back of the stage opens during the usually offstage bacchanal chorus and the revelers can be seen, but the weird lighting makes you realize that they are only a figment of Violetta's feverish delusions.
Director Bliss Hebert also takes a hyper-realistic storybook approach. All of the movement is natural, but when the characters have no reason to move, he creates a tableaux vivant that looks like an old photograph. It is almost as if we are remembering Traviata rather than watching real events unfolding. Yet he creates vivid characters within the confines of directorial restraint that convey a stifling social world in which mores and behaviors are strictly dictated by tradition. In this context, even the initial flush of love when Violetta and Alfredo first meet is tinged with an uneasy sense of foreboding. Thomas Hase follows suit with lighting that creates a feeling of gloom, even when the stage is brightly lit.
This is an evocative, moody production of one of the most beautiful operas ever written, performed with a consistent degree of musical excellence that few other opera houses could match.