United States Verdi, La traviata: Opera Philadelphia, soloists, Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 4.10.2015 (BJ)
Verdi, La traviata
Director: Paul Curran
Set and Costume Design: Garry McCann
Lighting Design: Paul Hackenmueller
Chorus Master: Elizabeth Braden
Wig and Make-up Design: David Zimmerman
Violetta Valéry: Lisette Oropesa
Alfredo Germont: Alek Shrader
Giorgio Germont: Stephen Powell
Baron Douphol: Daniel Mobbs
Gastone: Roy Hage
Marchese d’Obigny: Jarrett Ott
Flora Bervoix: Katherine Pracht
Doctor Grenville: Andrew Bogard
Annina: Rachel Sterrenberg
Giuseppe: Daniel Taylor
Messenger: Garrett Obrycki
Flora’s Servant: Daniel Schwarz
In a highly impressive role and company debut, Lisette Oropesa masterfully encompassed the combination of charm, fragility, and inner strength that defines Violetta Valéry’s character, singing moreover with great beauty of tone and firmness of line. At the matinee second performance, it took her perhaps half an hour to bring her voice under full control—in Act I it had seemed a slightly unwieldy instrument, managing Verdi’s rich fioriture accurately but not sounding quite at ease with the task. But from Act II onward I had no such complaints, and was comprehensively won over by a vocal and dramatic portrayal of irresistible power and grace.
Alek Shrader, also making a role and company debut, showed us an Alfredo who was a fairly ordinary young man, which was no doubt a true enough representation of the character. He sang efficiently if not with notable beauty of sound or phrasing—perhaps appropriately, it was only in the final scene, of Violetta’s death, that his performance took on a full degree of emotional power. The role of his father, Giorgio Germont, is a happy hunting-ground for baritones, and Stephen Powell filled it splendidly.
Among the consistently well-cast smaller roles, Daniel Mobbs’s Baron Douphol, Roy Hage’s Gastone, Jarrett Ott’s Marchese d’Obigny, and Andrew Bogard’s Doctor Grenville were all dramatically convincing and sure of voice. As an equally excellent Flora, Katherine Pracht looked like a million francs, and Rachel Sterrenberg was a touching and unusually spirited Annina.
The contributions of all these soloists were finely supported by conductor Corrado Rovaris, who paced the score compellingly and drew particularly eloquent playing from the violins in the intensely expressive lines that Verdi provided them with. Elizabeth Braden’s well-drilled chorus completed an admirable musical ensemble.
About Scottish director Paul Curran’s staging, I suffered some apprehension in advance when I read his remarks in the program. He has transferred the action from the 18th century to Paris in what he calls “the conservative 1950s,” regarding this as the most recent combination of time and place in which the high-societal response to a sex scandal “mattered.” Well, when I first visited Paris in the late 1940s and the ’50s it didn’t seem like that kind of buttoned-up place to me. But it may well be that Mr. Curran has better information on the subject than I do, given my status at the time as an innocent English teenager of decidedly working-class background with no entrée into the upper reaches of French society. (It’s hard for a modern audience member to understand why the Germonts and Violetta can’t see that Giorgio’s daughter would be much better off without a supposedly “loving young man” who would desert her on such grounds as what kind of woman her brother is living with. But, as L.P. Hartley puts it in the unforgettable first sentence of his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”)
The Prelude to Act I was played, following a regrettably frequent choice of present-day opera direction, with the curtain up, showing us Violetta in the middle of a medical consultation, and thus diminishing the magical expectancy engendered when one hears this wonderful music in a dark house. In Act I itself, when the future lovers first encounter each other, the stage direction has Violetta give Alfredo her hand to kiss: why, in this production, did she instead turn away from his outstretched hand, creating an effect of inappropriate rudeness? And my wife, who knows about such things, tells me that in this bibulous opening scene the chorus was dancing a macarena, which updated the action by another four decades, and furthermore seemed superfluous to the serious drinking that a Brindisi is supposed to be about. Then in Act II there were moments when shadows started passing rapidly and repeatedly behind the scene, without any purpose that was vouchsafed to us, and distracting at least this spectator from the music and the important action on stage.
Gary McCann’s costumes were attractive and his sets, skillfully lit by Paul Hackenmueller, were sumptuously handsome. However, it seemed strange that the characters had the same decorative wall panels seen in Violetta’s Act-I house carried around and reassembled in different combinations in the country house of Act II Scene I, and then in Flora’s palace in the following scene, and even in Violetta’s bedroom in Act III.
In any event, though, while I may disagree with some of the director’s conclusions, it soon became clear that they resulted from thoroughly serious and work-respectful thinking, and for the most part his vision of La traviata came across as both emotionally truthful and thought-provoking. For example, in Act II he had Alfredo indulge in some fooling around with a tennis racquet that seemed at the time distracting and unnecessary—but in retrospect I find myself thinking that it served cannily to convey the immaturity and superficiality of a character who only really grows up once he has fully apprehended the depth and indeed the nobility of Violetta’s love.