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Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Text by Francesco Maria Piave
As the familiar, delicate strains of the Prelude to Act One float up from the orchestra pit, we see a coffin, pallbearers and mourners all in black and carrying umbrellas. A disconsolate looking male figure is skulking in the gloom. And then we flash to a wild party, the carrot-haired hostess in a shocking pink flare-gathered party dress and emitting whoops of glee as she leads her guests in frantic, sexually charged revelry. Nothing looks at all like a Parisian drawing room, and an actual New Mexico sunset can be glimpsed over the distant Santa Jemez Mountains.
For the rest of the evening, this “La Traviata” will never so much as hint at the usual 19th-century French salon mise en scene one sees so frequently Out West.
Making a refreshing departure into new “Traviata” territory are director and costume designer Laurent Pelly, scenic designer Chantal Thomas, and, celebrated French soprano Natalie Dessay — whom one suspects has more to do with this entire show than the program indicates. Certainly she is one of the few major singers around with the ability and inclination to sing the difficult role of Violetta while performing virtually non-stop feats of athleticism – jumping from one high pedestal to another, riding the shoulders of partygoers and being tossed about by same, and crawling, creeping, collapsing and curling up into fetal positions – without noticeably missing a note — sort of. (A case could be made that it seriously affects her singing.) Even when Dessay was not moving very much, as in the last scene in which she is supposed to be dying, her very inaction of lying very still for such long periods of time became another gymnastic accomplishment.
All this hyperkinetic acting (certainly undreamed of by most of the great Violetta’s of the past, Callas included) as well as everything else in the opera was performed on a stage piled with box-like structures of various sizes and lengths. Not in the least representational, this abstract set design offered the director virtually unlimited opportunities for creating interesting stage pictures. The principals and chorus formed and reformed in clusters or groups in which some characters were higher than others. (This was used in some cases to suggest dramatic relationships – as when Germont towers over a cowering Violetta.) Thomas’s one unfortunate miscalculation was in Act Two where a quasi-representational grassy bank stood in for Violetta’s country villa. Called the “shag carpet” by some SFO insiders, it looked uncomfortably like a wall of dirt or manure covered with green moss. More cubes would have been just fine.
Dessay, of course, was and is the drawing card for this sold-out show, and she does not disappoint her many fans. Her voice does not seem to this reviewer to be ideal for Violetta; she is essentially a light lyric coloratura soprano. On the other hand, one could easily name many sopranos who have succeeded in the part with voices of varying types. (Licia Albanese was a light lyric soprano famous for the role. Bidu Sayao also sang it.) Oddly enough Dessay seemed weakest in the “Ah, fors’ è lui” (all the verses for a change) and the “Sempre libera” sections where one might expect her to dazzle.
Dessay was strongest – very strong indeed – in the “Addio del passato” and elsewhere in the last act where there are fewer opportunities for vocal display. (Surprisingly, though, her dramatic utterance of “Amami, Alfredo” in Act Two was feeble, leading one to fear a Act Four disaster But she was extremely affecting in the final moments, and the director’s idea to play the scene as if Violetta were becoming increasingly isolated (as opposed to being forgiven and reconciled with her lover and his father) was heart-wrenching. Germont, the doctor and Alfredo withdrew from stage, stepping slowly backwards – and it was almost as if in the final moments of her life she was deserted by everybody and was hallucinating a vision of happiness.
In the “Sempre libera,” by the way, Dessay, in order to get her final “money note,” fudged the music by not singing through the final cadences leading up to it. The tenor did this too elsewhere. It’s not an unusual practice, but it’s disappointing and detracts from the exciting impression the artist hopes to make.
Though Frédéric Chaslin’s conducting was exceptionally good – well chosen tempi, many very fast, some quite slow, all with wonderful balances emerging from the pit – this opera was not much of a musical experience to savor repeatedly on recordings as it is in so many Golden Age performances. Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu was pleasing to hear most of the time, and he looked his role and thoroughly entered into the extreme physicality of the drama with all its excess of passionate embraces and loving lifting. But the many great tenor moments of the piece passed without leaving an indelible impression. The voice is light, attractive, not consistently compelling.
As Alfredo’s complicated and complicating father, Giorgio Germont, bass baritone Laurent Naouri (Dessay’s husband in the real world), seemed much more than adequate and he even got to sing a cabaletta often missing from Act Two. It was a performance that exuded authority. Meanwhile, the chorus was smashing – and the director never failed to use them all in inventive ways. The male partygoers in Act Three, for instance, did a parody of the Spanish ballet, and the gypsy number was a noir-ish Ziegfeld pageant.
In these Opera West pages, it would be difficult for the reader to miss the fact that the very last posted review was of a Los Angeles “La Traviata.” That offering presented us with soprano Marina Poplavskaya, a new and very wonderful Violetta in a tired, tried and true “new” production. It’s worth taking a look. For singing Violetta, Poplavskaya leaves Dessay in the dust; but Dessay does her “own thing” quite memorably.
Conductor: Frederic Chaslin
Director and costume designer: Laurent Pelly
Associate director: Christian Rath
Scenic designer: Chantal Thomas
Lighting designer: Duane Schuler
Associate costume designer: Jean-Jacques Delmont
Chorus master: Sussane Sheston
Violetta – Natalie Dessay
Alfredo – Saimir Pirgu
Gastone – Keith Jameson
Germont (through Aug. 17) – Laurent Naouri
Germont (Aug. 22, 26, 29) – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Douphol – Wayne Tigges
Dr. Grenvil – Harold Wilson