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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 20, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 03
La Traviata: terrific performance, terrible production
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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La Traviata: terrific performance, terrible production

by Alice Bloch - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
LA TRAVIATA
BY GUISEPPE VERDI
LIBRETTO BY
FRANCESCO MARIA PIAVE
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
(SUNDAY CAST)
January 15 (thru 1/28)


In 2009, a friend who'd never attended an opera asked me to select one and go with her. I chose La Traviata at Seattle Opera, and it turned out to be a thrilling performance of a lovely production. When the friend became a season subscriber the next day, my partner said to me, 'You changed her from an opera virgin into an opera whore in one afternoon!'

If I'd taken my friend to the bleak, cynical production now onstage at Seattle Opera, I doubt she would have had the same reaction. Don't get me wrong: La Traviata is one of the great operas, and the singers and orchestra in the Sunday performance of the opening weekend did justice (and then some) to Verdi's fabulous score and Piave's tight libretto. In the extremely difficult central role of the courtesan Violetta, soprano Angel Blue showed amazing vocal dexterity and expressiveness. That she sang and acted flawlessly in her role debut was all the more impressive in that the opera was performed without intermission and she was onstage nearly all the time.

As Alfredo, Violetta's one true love, tenor Zach Borichevsky sang beautifully, particularly in the softer passages. Baritone Stephen Powell, as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, had appropriate gravitas, and his nice, full voice blended perfectly with Blue's and Borichevsky's in the ensemble numbers.

There wasn't a weak link in the cast or in the always-fine chorus, and the orchestra played magnificently under the direction of Stefano Ranzani. The woodwinds and brass deserve special mention for their gorgeous sound. Dramaturg Jonathan Dean did his usual splendid job of creating the English captions.

In spite of the wonderful music and excellent performances, this production founders theatrically. The approach taken by German stage director Peter Konwitschny, revival director Mika Blauensteiner, and production designer Johannes Leiacker makes this Traviata a dry intellectual experience rather than a rich emotional one. At key dramatic moments, the house lights come on and destroy the audience's immersion in the story onstage. The set consists of a series of curtains and a wooden chair, and sometimes a pile of books. The curtains are dragged open and closed repeatedly by the characters. The chair is sat upon, stood upon, kicked, and thrown. The books are there because Alfredo reads obsessively and has acquired all his ideas about love from romantic novels. When he sings of his love for Violetta, he reads the words from the pages of a book. Verdi clearly wanted us to see Alfredo's love for Violetta as sincere and heartfelt, if a bit immature, but the production team wants us to watch it from an ironic distance.

This is a cheap production, and by that, I don't just mean inexpensive - although what could be less expensive than some curtains and a wooden chair to serve as the set for all three acts? I mean that the production takes cheap shots, not only at Alfredo but at all the characters, by inserting acts of violence that exist nowhere in the libretto. In Act II, Giorgio Germont tries to persuade Violetta to give up his son because the scandalous liaison will prevent Germont from marrying off his young daughter into a respectable family. For no apparent reason, in this production the daughter is shown onstage, where she is shoved around and slapped by her father. In another interpolation later in the scene, Violetta points a pistol at herself and then at Germont.

In an equally mystifying turn, the same director who has added gratuitous slapping and pistol-brandishing then waters down the implicit violence of the gambling scene at the end of Act II. This scene is supposed to end with Alfredo's shockingly insulting act of throwing cash at Violetta. In this production, no money is thrown, and the scene loses its emotional power.

I could go on and on, but I'll just mention one more strange and off-putting directorial decision. At the very end of the opera, Violetta is supposed to die in Alfredo's arms, reunited at last. But in this production, Alfredo abandons her while she's dying and walks offstage into the theater, where he takes refuge with his father in an aisle on the Orchestra level.

It's rare for Seattle Opera to mount a production unworthy of the talent onstage and in the orchestra pit. I hope fervently that it won't happen again for many seasons.

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