Opera Review: Viva Verdi!

The Italian composer’s famous masterpiece “La Traviata” receives a production that is worthy of the opera’s enduring artistry.

By Mark Kroll

The Boston Lyric Opera has just begun a nice long run of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” and this is a good thing for Boston’s opera lovers. “La Traviata” finds Verdi at the height of his skill as a composer, and more specifically as a dramatic composer. One senses this from the very opening measures of the orchestral prelude. Instead of the usual “wake up and listen” opera overture, Verdi begins with a quiet but haunting melody for divided violins that exquisitely prepares the audience for the tragic tale of love and death that will follow. In fact, Verdi and his librettist first considered using the title “Love and Death” for this opera.

“La Traviata” is indeed an opera about the contradictions in human existence, and perhaps only Verdi could so effectively express through music the changing moods and emotions of its protagonists. For example, in the duet sung by Violetta and Alfredo in Act I, the love-struck tenor is first given a simple tender melody, while the world-weary and cynical heroine replies with brilliant coloratura runs that are as superficial as the life she leads. As Alfredo’s music becomes more passionate, and as Violetta begins to show a genuine connection to this man, perhaps even an unaccustomed feeling of real love, she incorporates (i.e., accepts) some of Alfredo’s musical material into her own.

In point of fact, psychological conditions are vividly depicted by Verdi’s music throughout the opera. For example, Violetta’s part continually shifts from major to minor keys, depending on her mood and the circumstances. The wide range of vocal styles she is given by Verdi is also intentional. Her exuberant ornamentation in Act I, her faithful declamation of Act II, and the otherworldly melodies she sings in Act III tell us exactly what is happening on stage, even if we closed our eyes. Great drama, magnificent music, psychological insight — that is what makes “La Traviata” the masterpiece it is.

And the Boston Lyric Opera’s production fulfills the opera’s promises. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova was compelling as Violetta Valery, her big, beautiful voice capable of negotiating both intricate coloratura passages and bel-canto legato. Garrett Sorenson did a fine job as Alfredo Germont, although his voice is somewhat smaller than Kuznetsova’s, creating some balance problems when they sang together. It was also probably not a good idea to place him at the rear of the set in some scenes, since he became difficult to hear. James Westman’s magnificent baritone effectively conveyed the contradictory impulses and actions of Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, and the performance of James Maddalena as Baron Douphol was ideal in its vocal virtuosity and in the manner in which he conveyed the Baron’s arrogance.

The other singers — Alan Schneider (Gaston), David Kravitz (Marchese D’Obigny), David Cushing (doctor Grenvil) Stephanie Chigas (Flora) and Alisa Cassola (Annina) — were also a pleasure to hear. The chorus was excellent, thanks to the preparation by Chorus Master William Cutter, and a special bravo must be given to the superb orchestra. It played with true virtuosity, and conductor Stephen Lord’s interpretation of the score made the opera what opera is supposed to be–a “drama per musica.”

The sets of Bruno Schwengl were not to my taste, but they were insightful. For example, the first act was basically red, presumably to reflect the hedonistic activities at the party, while scene one of the second act was painted in the pale whites of purity and fidelity. The stage direction of James Robinson did nothing to impede the action, but it didn’t do much to help it either. There were also a few awkward moments in the party scenes when the large ensemble of chorus singers didn’t seem to know in which direction to move, and the masquerade of “bullfighters” and “gypsies” at Flora’s salon in the second scene of Act II didn’t quite achieve the desired effect.

“La Traviata” is one of Verdi’s most beloved operas, and the Boston Lyric’s production reminds us why. However, things didn’t start out quite as well at the premiere of “La Traviata” on March 6, 1853 at Venice’s “La Fenice” theater. It was frankly a disaster, and this work, which can be translated as “The Fallen Woman,” almost became “The Fallen Opera.”

But it wasn’t Verdi’s fault! The tenor in the role of Germont got sick just before opening night and lost his voice, but he insisted on singing anyhow. The great bass Felice Vareis, who had achieved stardom in the roles of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and “Macbeth,” was now past his prime. Nevertheless, he made it painfully obvious to both composer and audience that he felt insulted by being given only a supporting role. Fanny Salvini-Donatelli reportedly sang Violetta beautifully, but she also had what we now delicately call a “weight problem,” and the audience couldn’t help but laugh aloud every time the visibly rotund and well-fed Violetta complained about wasting away from consumption.

Verdi admitted that the premiere “was a fiasco,” but he was an artist of supreme confidence. Once, when questioned about the immoral plot of “La Traviata,” he replied “everyone groaned when I proposed putting a hunchback on the stage. Well, I enjoyed writing ‘Rigoletto.'” Verdi therefore said: “for my part, the final word on ‘Traviata’ was not spoken last night. They will see it again, and we shall see! Time will show.” He didn’t have to wait very long. The next performance at Venice’s San Benedetto Theater on May 6, 1854 was a resounding success, and time has indeed proven that Verdi was correct.

The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “La Traviata” continues through April 11, 2006 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, MA.

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