Opera Review: 'La Traviata' kicks off 'Verdi-fest'

Seattle Opera's production soothes and sometimes soars, but doesn't stretch.
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Nuccia Focile (Violetta) and Dimitri Pittas (Alfredo) in Seattle Opera's <i>La Traviata</i>

Seattle Opera's production soothes and sometimes soars, but doesn't stretch.

For all its blockbuster status, La Traviata is one of Verdi's subtlest creations. His score is a model of economy and nuanced characterization. It can accommodate an inexhaustible range of interpretations without diluting the direct emotional impact Verdi always has in focus. No wonder the play (and novel) by Alexandre Dumas fils has become a dated curiosity, while the opera remains among the most reliably popular ever composed.

Seattle Opera is currently offering Traviata, not just as its season opener but as the first in a lineup of three Verdi operas in a row (to be followed by Il Trovatore — which the composer was still wrapping up when he began Traviata in 1852 — and his farewell to the stage, Falstaff).

Judging from Wednesday evening's performance — the second of the run featuring the "gold" cast — I have to wonder how much of the Verdi-fest now underway this season will aim for fresh insight into some of this composer's most beloved works. In both musical and dramatic terms, Traviata showed this to be in uncomfortably short supply.

The production is a sort of palimpsest, featuring the company debut of stage director Mark Streshinsky, using the familiar and well traveled set design by John Conklin, with costumes by David Walker, that was created for San Francisco Opera over two decades ago.

The pre-existing scenic elements prove their reliability once again, with a well conceived balance of showy grandeur and intimacy that is central to this opera. We first see the troubled Violetta Valery encased in a flouncy, cream-colored confection, her Parisian splendor financed by an aristocratic sugar daddy. Her salon is decked out with soft-core paintings of classical myth and elegant tableware (which Violetta has an expensive habit of impulsively sweeping aside). The soothing look of the country house where she spends her brief idyll with Alfredo makes a neat contrast with the heavily curtained, garish display at her friend Flora's when she reluctantly returns, dressed in widow black, to Paris.

But the most effective touch of all comes in the looming solitude of the final act. Up to this point, what we have is a period Traviata — "period" meaning the time when Verdi composed the opera, when his desire to use contemporary costumes was in fact a radical choice, vetoed by the censors. But Conklin's sharply angled walls and ghost-grey interior for the death scene introduce an expressionist, neo-gothic edge: Things are falling apart, as seen from Violetta's point of view. Verdi's harrowing vision throughout the opera is to show the social surfaces of her familiar world being progressively stripped away.

The Prelude traces a reverse musical narrative: Violetta's illness first, followed by the hedonism she abandons. Streshinsky takes this as an excuse to stage a kind of flashback to open the opera, emphasizing the courtesan's fragility from the start with an exaggerated fainting spell that stuns her partygoers. To me, at least, this sounds a wrong note, and limits our sense of the emotional distance Violetta must travel by the opera's end — one of the major problems with the production. Act One in particular comes off as lackluster, just where you need the sparkling, forced joie de vivre of the collective revelry to be strongest. Connie Yun's lighting simply darkened for Violetta's interior transformation at the climax of Act One, instead of enhancing it.

Streshinsky also imposes a gratuitous entrance at the end of Act One for Alfredo (looking uncannily close to a stalker), which interrupts the psychological intensity of Violetta's internal debate. At the same time, he settles for tired clichés just where a fresh touch is most welcome: Violetta once again grabs the handy glass of champagne to fortify her "Sempre libera"; her keeper, the Baron Douphol (Barry Johnson), glowers with the usual nasty expression at rival Alfredo; crowd freeze-frames punctuate the leads' close-ups. Like most of the production as a whole, Streshinsky fares much better with the intimacy of the country-retreat scene and the final act, where the artifice has been stripped away. The contrasts essential to the opera's structure are what are so conspicuously lacking.

It's hard to discern to what extent these directorial choices influenced Nuccia Focile's interpretation of the heroine. The Sicilian soprano, a company favorite, brings her signature tenderness and moving, persuasive vulnerability to the role. Shades of her Mimi here a couple seasons ago reappeared in the moment she realizes what it will take to break away from Alfredo, as well as in her deeply affecting "Addio del passato." Focile's delicately floated pianissimos (in recit and aria alike) were exquisitely heart-rending. Yet this is a role that requires a far richer range of vocal and dramatic personae — it's as "encyclopedic" as Bellini's Norma. Her Violetta remains altogether too innocent — barely conflicted, even. Focile's all-important Act One scena proved effortful, with weirdly stilted phrasing and forced impulsiveness in the coloratura of "Sempre libera."

As Alfredo, on the other hand, Dimitri Pittas makes an auspicious Seattle Opera debut. The natural, Italianate lyricism of his tenor brought out Alfredo's easy changeability, his emotional susceptibility as a callow lover who is, after all, only going through a phase — while Violetta is the one who undergoes the epiphany that alters her life.

Charles Taylor (who sang Amonasro in last season's Aida) is a rather coarsely expressive Germont, although his chemistry with Focile makes their encounter one of the most dramatically intense within this production. A sameness of phrasing, though, made it harder to believe in the gentleman and the compassionate father who returns later in the opera.

As Violetta's servant Annina, Emily Chubb brings incisive detail to the larger circumstances unfolding around her. Sarah Heltzel is a salty Flora, and Byron Ellis presents a grimly realistic Dr. Grenvil.

The fine conductor Vjekoslav Sutej unfortunately had to withdraw late in planning due to illness. Brian Garman, who has done good work with Seattle Opera's Young Artists program, was tapped to replace him. Traviata features lots of remarkably chamber-like scoring, where Verdi suggests volumes with a mere handful of pizzicato chords. Garman focused lots of attention to detail — particularly effective in Violetta's deathbed solitude — but lacked a strong sense of larger dramatic momentum and contrast. The Prelude seemed to unfold as one undifferentiated phrase. Elsewhere, too, as in the "Brindisi," the buoyant, feathery touch essential to depict Violetta in her social sphere was missing, while plodding tempos held the singers back. The chorus was competent rather than exciting in Flora's extravaganzas, which featured a mix of stilted choreography and welcome entertainment in the flamenco dancing by Sara de Luis and Antonio Granjero.

Performances of Seattle Opera's La Traviata continue at 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, at 2 p.m. Sunday, and at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 28, Oct. 30 and Oct. 31, all at McCaw Hall. For tickets and information see the Opera's website.


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