Tuesday, May 29, 2007

There is Nothing Like La Dame

[This is the text of my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of La Traviata for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

Nothing dates faster than relevance. The more a work of art addresses uniquely contemporary issues, the quicker it becomes stale and even, eventually, quaint.

When Verdi's La Traviata opened at the Teatro alla Fenice in 1853, it was very relevant. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils' 1852 stage adaptation or his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, Francesco Maria Piave's libretto was, as they say, “hot stuff”. The heroine (Marguerite in the original, Violetta in the opera) was clearly based on the recently deceased Alphonsine Plessis, one of the most famous members of the demi-monde, a term invented by Dumas to describe a class of women in Second Empire France who were “kept” by wealthy lovers in high style. They were often patrons of the arts and apparently knew how to throw one heck of a party, but were shunned by polite society. The sympathetic treatment of Violetta in the opera, therefore, was something of a scandal, especially when combined with Verdi's own flouting of “middle class morality” by openly living with his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strapponi.

The theatre's management tried to blunt the impact by forcing Verdi to set the action a century earlier, but I doubt that anyone was fooled. Certainly the censors and conservative critics weren't conned, and future productions were routinely attacked by the blinkered guardians of public morality.

The status of women in Western society has changed greatly over the last century and a half, however, and while Traviata's portrayal of the casual cruelty of the morally smug still has resonance, some of the drama now looks rather dated. And yet, the work is still immensely popular and is generally regarded as part of the core operatic repertoire. The current production, for example, is the fourth Opera Theatre has presented.


The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever heard the score. Verdi lavished his genius on La Traviata, filling the stage with brilliant choruses, ravishing duets and arias, and spectacular ensemble numbers. The finale of Act II, as Alfredo scorns Violetta for her supposed infidelity and is then scored in turn by Violetta's friends and nearly disowned by his father, is musical theatre at its best. The cultural context may be dated, but the emotions are universally human.

Happily, Opera Theatre has given us an array of wonderful voices to match this wonderful music. Ailyn Pérez brings a supple soprano and great dynamic range to the role of Violetta, dying of love and tuberculosis. She's nicely matched by the clear, ringing tenor of Dimitri Pittas as Alfredo, who couldn't buy a clue, even with 1000 Louis. Baritone James Westman sings the role of Alfredo's father Giorgio beautifully, but his acting seems to rely heavily on stock operatic gestures - a situation not helped by director James Robinson's decision to give Giorgio a bad case of barely sublimated lust for Violetta. Yes, it's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it adds anything other than a bit of unnecessary creepiness to Giorgio's character.

Tenor Tracy Wise is an appropriately dashing and impish Gaston and mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis a lively and provocative Flora. Mezzo Jamie Barton and bass David Keck round out this impressive roster as Violetta's stalwart maid, Annina and the sympathetic Doctor Grenville. Congratulations and virtual bouquets to all.

George Manahan leads the OTSL orchestra in a solid, sympathetic reading of the score. Choreographer Seán Curran fills the ensemble numbers and the brief Act II dance sequence with movement that's interesting and varied without ever being chaotic or distracting. Chorus master Sandra Horst has the ensemble sounding terrific, as usual.

Set and Costume Designer Bruno Schwengl has chosen a single color to saturate each of the first three scenes, to striking if occasionally excessive effect. Thus, Violetta's Act I salon is dominated by deep red with black accents, her country house by wintry white, and Flora's salon by purple and (if memory serves) blue. In the final scene, in which Violetta lies dying, the colors are washed out and faded, emphasizing the fading of her life and hope. Overly melodramatic? Perhaps, but Verdi's musical world seems to absorb it easily.

The bottom line is that Opera Theatre has given us yet another first-rate La Traviata, easily on the same level as its triumphant 2000 production. Lovers of great opera won't want to miss it. It's also very accessible, making it a good choice for someone looking for an introduction to the genre - and possibly easier to find tickets for than this season's other hit, The Mikado.

La Traviata continues in rotating repertory through June 23rd at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For performance times and ticket prices, call 314-961-0644 or visit the Opera Theatre web site at opera-stl.com.

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