The following review is based on the June 22nd (and closing night) performance of LA Opera’s production of “La Traviata.” Up until June 13th, Rame Lahaj and Vitaliy Bilyy portrayed Alfredo Germont and Giorgio Germont, respectively.
The high-class courtesan lifestyle of bygone eras has an ineffable quality about it, a je ne sais quoi that touches on a lavishness like in Robert Greene’s “Art of Seduction” which is overlaid on what some may deem an irredeemable moral turpitude. To say the least, this juxtaposition makes the courtesan all the more interesting — who in the context of LA Opera’s take on Giuseppe Verdi’s romantic tragedy, “La Traviata” — does more than just go against the accepted social order. Violetta, the protagonist in question, goes about it with enough finesse that she almost rises above her station and nearly casts aside the glowering eyes of judgment.
Nevertheless, this mid-19th century three-act Italian opera, based on Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camélias,” and adapted by librettist Francesco Maria Piave, is not so much a story about any such notable triumph, or even a tragedy caused by societal repercussions, but rather one that ends ironically. Similar, but inexact themes alluding to courtesanship, have been explored in other art forms and mediums like film (e.g., “Dangerous Beauty,” “Pretty Woman”) but the true original remains one of the most staged operas for the reason that it dazzles so well before hitting us with an operatic trademark of the highest order — a demonstrable outcome of misfortune.
Director and designer Marta Domingo, who is just as established as her husband Plácido, does a remarkable job of modernizing the look and feel of the production that is as definitively Art Deco as “The Great Gatsby.” Not since it was last staged in 2006, do LA Opera audience members have the opportunity to absorb the narrative about the glamorous and beautiful Violetta (Adela Zaharia) who parties in style with her lover and “protector,” Baron Douphol (Wayne Tigges). However, when the relatively straitlaced admirer Alfredo Germont (Charles Castronovo) is introduced to her by the nobleman Gastone (Alok Kumar), all bets come to a halt. The usually even-keel Violetta goes into an emotional tailspin when she falls in love with “nice guy” Alfredo, but this is short-lived when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Igor Golovatenko), beseeches Violetta one-on-one to leave his son so that his daughter (and Alfredo’s sister) doesn’t have her reputation sullied and marriage possibilities ruined just by mere association. The pressing decision Violetta must make yields a conflagration of emotions and actions that lead into the heart-wrenching finale.
The set of “La Traviata” is majestic and includes a shimmering chandelier and disco ball hanging overhead, falling leaves and snow, and an antique car driven onstage, to name a few. The costumes are dazzlingly exquisite with delightfully divine gowns for the women and fantastically formfitting suits for the men. If there ever was an opera that necessitated ordering a glass of champagne – either before the show or during intermission – this is it. All of these scenic trappings are richly accented by Alan Burrett’s lush lighting that emphasizes both the performers’ stillness and the celebratory dancing (especially Flora’s party in Act II), which is choreographed by Kitty McNamee and receives unanimous appreciation from the audience. Solo dancer Louis A. Williams, Jr. deserves acclaim for how well he energizes the crowd with his agility and panache.
Moreover, Verdi’s tunes – manifested in immaculate form by conductor James Conlon and chorus director Grant Gershon – straddle the difficult line between the mirthful and the melancholy. The acceptable and verboten standards of social agreeableness clash in Violetta’s hedonistic paradise to reveal a dark underbelly that is a challenge for her to confront – and the sweeping softness of the tunes interchanging with Verdi’s louder declamations denote this.
The performers not only sing their parts seamlessly, but their compelling acting is just as important and necessary in highlighting the stakes involved in the main arc: Violetta and Alfredo’s love affair. Suffice it to say, the 2017 Operalia winner Adela Zaharia (last seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in “Rigoletto”) makes for a wonderful Violetta, whose carefree approach to life becomes caved and repurposed upon meeting tenor Charles Castronovo’s passionate and resolved Alfredo. From their shared aria of the world-renowned ode to drinking, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (“Let’s drink from the joyful cups”), to the melodious motif sparked by their duet of “Un dì, felice, eterea” (“One day, happy and ethereal”), Zaharia and Castronovo are as vocally engaging as they are a satisfying visual match. Struggling with failing health (tuberculosis), and as the receiver of inauspicious news, the soprano Zaharia is satisfyingly heartbreaking in harnessing an angelic purity as Violetta, who loves Alfredo unconditionally (i.e., “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo” which translates to “Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you.”)
Of course, Violetta and Alfredo’s joy is ephemeral largely due to the latter’s father who, for the sake of his family, though perhaps without the intent to cause a stinging sadness, entreats Violetta that the relationship be dismantled. Although we might disagree with his position, we can understand this product-of-its-time rationale, which Igor Golovatenko, as Giorgio Germont, bellows with a propulsive poignancy in “Pura siccome un angelo, Iddio mi diè una figlia” (“Pure as an angel, God gave me a daughter”). Golovatenko is so honorable and persuasive that his character adds to the complexity of the issue at hand.
Last, but not least, Wayne Tigges is charismatic as Baron Douphol; Christopher Job is reassuring as Doctor Grenvil, Alok Kumar is a suave Gastone, Peabody Southwell is engaging as Flora (Violetta’s best friend), Juan Carlos Heredia gives another versatile performance as Marquis D’Obigny, and Erica Petrocelli is pleasantly compassionate as Annina the maid.
Overall, there are reasons to celebrate and reasons to feel something much deeper – whether it’s about the human condition or one’s reputation in LA Opera’s eloquent version of “La Traviata.” It stylishly marks the end of the 2018-19 season before the new one begins with Puccini’s “La Bohème” on September 13th.
For more information about LA Opera’s “La Traviata,” as well as upcoming productions, please visit laopera.org