Dallas Opera’s current production of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Winspear Opera House hovers tantalizingly close to greatness at times—often enough to allow the listener to leave the house convinced that a major operatic monument has unfolded on stage, but not often enough to allow that same audience member to be totally satisfied that the work has been presented at its best.
The opening moments were, unfortunately, the weakest in almost all respects. Director Bliss Hebert clearly had good intentions in presenting an onstage pantomime of a depressed, disheartened Violetta, moping about her Paris mention, during the Overture. But staging the Overture of a traditional opera is almost always a bad idea: it inherently questions the wisdom of the composer in writing an overture, and introduces a visual distraction from what is often meaningful musical content. Hebert may have intended to communicate that the opera is either a dream or a recollection; in either case, the music, all by itself, transmits its own message quite well without the visual interference.
It doesn’t help that Allen Charles Klein’s sets and costumes, originally designed for Miami Opera in close collaboration with director Hebert, are so elaborate as to virtually swallow up the characters presented onstage in Act I. Dressing Violetta in black against a troupe of supporting women in bright colors might seem like a good idea, but in practice it resulted in her virtual disappearance, a result even further promoted by the busy furnishings on the stage: all too often, the viewer has to make a conscious effort to find her in the crowd.
This certainly may have contributed to the general inability of Greek soprano Myrto Paptanasiu, making her American debut in the role of Violetta, and American tenor James Valenti as Alfredo to produce any real excitement in their first scenes together. Paptanasiu tends to rely on sheer volume and let go of any subtlety in the louder passages, though, even early on, she displayed a great sensitivity and warmth in the more reflective sections.
As the opera progressed—and the scenery became less elaborate—the level of excitement increased. While the opening act had been disappointing, the second scene of Act II—a costume party scene—was totally engaging on all levels. Here, with the crowd and chorus generally in red, Violetta stood out strikingly in white (evoking the camellias associated with other manifestations of this character, including Greta Garbo’s appearance in the 1939 cinema classic Camille). And here, the chorus and secondary characters were intriguingly outfitted to suggest characters in other great operas. Oddly, now in conflict, Paptanasiu and Valenti were able at last to make sparks fly. Here, Verdi created one of the finest dramatic scenes in all opera, providing a skillfully wrought roller-coaster of moods and styles. And here, the singers took advantage of the score in a way they hadn’t before.
Bringing nineteenth-century characters to life in the twenty-first century of course presents numerous challenges and opportunities. The costume design clearly indicated that Klein and Hebert had pushed the action forward from the middle nineteenth century to the late, resulting in a few easily forgiven anachronisms (mainly in reference to obsolete currency). Some of the portrayal choices were less forgiveable, however, including baritone Laurent Naouri’s deliberately stiff and proper rendition of Giorgio Germont, and Paptanasiu’s brief excursion, in Act I, into a Violetta who, uncharacteristically for a high class courtesan, sits on a table, props her leg up and shows some ankle in a manner more typical of Molly Brown or Sally Bowles—not a disastrous lapse, but disturbing nonetheless.
From the viewpoint of the conductor, there are two ways to approach Verdi’s music. One, typical of Americans and northern Europeans, is to attempt to work around and gloss over the village-band, oom-pah-pah orchestration; the other, typical of Italians, is to embrace that energy. Conductor Marco Giudarini, not surprisingly, took the latter path, and made a good case for it. In spite of some problems on the stage, the opening sections were ebullient and straightforward, with every heavy-booted downbeat in place Giurdarini proved that he and Verdi both knew exactly what they were doing as the increasingly sophisticated and subtle orchestration flowed naturally and irresistably toward the tragic finale.
Photo by Karen Almond