Posted by: operatheaterink | September 15, 2014

Review: ‘La Traviata,’ Los Angeles Opera, Sept. 15, 2014

LA Opera’s 1920’s Art Deco ‘La Traviata’ rates a 9.

Nino Machaidze & Arturo Chacon-Cruz.                       (Photo: Craig Mathew)

Nino Machaidze & Arturo Chacón-Cruz.
(Photo: Craig Mathew)


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

The opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s 2014-15 season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had people rising from their seats before the production of “La Traviata” even began — to sing the national anthem under the direction of the honoree of the evening, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, for his continued support of LA Opera and the arts through the funding of radio, Web and video broadcasts on KUSC, WFMT and at the Santa Monica Pier. He also appeared as a non-speaking, non-singing supernumerary or extra. As a critic, I give him a 10.

But the evening was not about the political landscape of LA. It was about opera, and that rang true from the red carpet walk of celebrities and LA Opera patrons into the Pavilion to hear opera, and on to the patio of the Music Center Plaza after the performance — to celebrate the detail-perfect opening production of “La Traviata,” the contributions of Yaroslavsky, and frankly, even the warm weather. The patio was adorned with tables and decorations in the Art Deco tradition, a band for dancing, and lights. The Opera Ball matched the production, which is set in the flapper era.

Marta Domingo’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” is a fine-tuned, upgraded revival of her 2006 production. It is polished to perfection with all the old kinks removed. I can honestly say it is a beautiful, stylish production.

Still, I am an old-fashioned girl and just love the period of the original, which is in the 1800s but has been set as early as the 1700s. Yet I try to keep an open mind because this production in 1920’s America still captures what needs to be captured and enables those of us who have seen the opera multiple times, to see it in a new light that is respectful of the composer and provides a fresh look at the story.

Patterned after the real Marie Duplessis who became Marguerite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camélias” and Violetta Valéry in “La Traviata,” Violetta is a French courtesan with beauty and class. Alfredo Germont meets, falls in love with her, and soon lives with her in a cottage on the French countryside. Georgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, cannot fathom the idea that his son is cohabitating with a “demimondaine.” He explains to Violetta that her scandalous affair with his son will affect his daughter’s wedding plans and urges her to leave him. At first, Violetta is unwilling, then consents to honor Georgio’s wishes. Since she cannot tell Alfredo the true reason for her departure, he scorns her at a party hosted by their friend, Flora.

Since Georgio is a good man and finally realizes the hurt he has caused, he tells Alfredo the truth, and the two make their way to Violetta’s residence. But it is too late. She is dying of consumption. At least the two lovers are reunited.

Analytically speaking, in the first act, we see a party-like gathering. Since this is now the Roaring Twenties in the United States, not only are the costumes and sets updated, but so are the reactions between the women and men. Violetta is free. Alfredo puts the make on her. This happens more as in the modern era than in the era of long ago. Courtisans were many cuts above prostitutes in the 1800s. Yet in the 1920s, they were more like high-priced prostitutes. So in this production, the flirting between Violetta and Alfredo seems more overt, modern, earthy and blunt than what occurs in the traditional setting of the opera, which is more subtle. Naturally, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave does not change from one production to the other, but the tone or acting of the singing dialogue does. I am not sure I like the difference. I would rather imagine what is unsaid than see it right in front of me.

Alfredo, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, sang a nice drinking song and did his share of flirting and persuasion with “Un dì, felice, eterea,” which flowed into “Di quell’amor ch’è palpito.” Soprano Nino Machaidze sang a lovely “Ah, fors’è lui” which flowered into “A quell’amor.” Her “Sempre libera” aria had flowing tones with musicality, excellent coloratura, and she was gracefully theatrical with unstilted movement. Many young sopranos sing these arias with stilted acting which is not believable. Machaidze’s singing becomes dialogue that meshes with her character so that those in the audience connect. Then we are able to forget ourselves and feel sympathy by the time she dies. Machaidze is more lyric than some sopranos who sing the role, which could be good or bad. A command of the coloratura is important, and Machaidze is a pro, but extreme thinness and exaggerated openness in the high register can be unpleasing, although sometimes necessary and unavoidable, so every soprano should watch out for the pitfall.

The first scene is cleverly staged at the beginning with a French streetlight downstage and some action between a high-priced hooker and solicitor. As the scrim is raised, a vintage 1929 Chrysler is driven onstage. I still don’t like its intrusiveness, but it does set the period with a jolt.

The sets allow us to suspend our imagination. We might see an inside room as well as the snow behind it without any indication of a window. Likewise, in the first scene, Violetta changes clothes in her salon with the help of her maid, Annina. She appears to be in a slip or something very casual. Then suddenly Alfredo enters with love in his eyes, as if he knows her intimately when the last time we saw him, the two had just met and were merely flirting. Usually this change does not occur. Some of the actions are difficult to believe. These two are fast workers. I suppose they were fast workers in the traditional setting as well, but some things are better left to the imagination.

In the second act, the new improved set, as compared to the 2006 production, flaunts some gorgeous autumn leaves and 1920’s Art Deco furniture.

Plácido Domingo has been billed as the main star of this “La Traviata,” playing the role of Georgio Germont. Normally, the two stars are the tenor and soprano with a significant baritone or bass-baritone playing Georgio. But since Domingo is the right age, has the right stature, and now sings baritone roles, he took on the elder Germont. I tried to adjust to the change. My mind was thinking that I wanted to hear a distinguished father with a lower, richer sound than the ring of a tenor. The type of vocal beauty of a tenor is quite different from the timbre of a baritone. It was difficult for my mind to adjust to the sound of a tenor in the duet, when Georgio urges Violetta to leave Alfredo. But Domingo sang and acted well, so I tried to adjust. But it was strange. Domingo sings as a baritone now, but he approaches his tones still more like a tenor. So I heard a different elder Germont than usual, but one that was realistic in presentation and clearly appreciated by the audience.

I also saw a different type of relationship occurring earlier in the act between father and son, which fully revealed itself in the following scene at the party given by Violetta’s friend Flora, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell.

Chacón-Cruz sang with a youthful approach to love and a vulnerability that was refreshing. With Domingo as his tenor-like father, here the two singers with a tenor sound seemed appropriate. I saw a more real relationship between the young Germont and the older father than usual, with parallel sound. I have never seen such a passionate relationship between father and son in “La Traviata.” It adds a new dimension to the opera.

Flora’s party proved that the production is visually stunning. With the glitzy discotheque-type glimmering chandelier hanging from above and the dazzling costumes and Art Deco setting, this scene keeps the audience wide-eyed and watching. The ballet is well-choreographed and enacted. In the past, a matador solo seemed somewhat out-of-place. This time, solo dancer Louis A. Williams Jr. adds an animalistic, virile group of balletic and modern-dance movements that are executed with precision and fit this party scene which defines the moral excesses of the period.

Peabody Southwell is a delight to behold as Flora. Flora often fades into the background and is hardly noticed. Although Southwell’s voice is mellow, this role can only become visual and memorable with other attributes applied. At the opening, Southwell was engaged as her character every minute she was onstage. Her facial expressions and statuesque movements were hard to overlook. Her costume, makeup and wig add to her characterization. She has become a significant character in a scene that rarely focuses on anyone but Alfredo, Violetta, and the scenery and spectacle.

In the last act, we find Violetta dying on a round bed with snowflakes falling from behind. There might be a window that is not visible. Again, imagination helps capture the moment because the beauty of this visual makes for a modernized theatricality that creates a picture of stunning imagery.

Machaidze sang a heartfelt “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti.” We in the audience hoped that Alfredo would make it in time. Machaidze has great skill in her ability to color and shade tones whether high or low. She can crescendo or decrescendo a tone to add color that other sopranos sing straight. However, at some moments, her pianissimo tones were inaudible, but the acoustics in the Pavilion are not perfect. Although she sang more passionately than the soprano in 2006, at one moment we could see her dying actions while at the next, she seemed in prime health. Even if the actions mirror the libretto, the Anna Pavlova fragileness of Violetta throughout the act helps make the final collapse more devastating. Angela Gheorghiu accomplished this feat in her Royal Opera House, Covent Garden portrayal of Violetta under the direction of Sir Georg Solti in 1994. But as convincing as Machaidze’s portrayal was on opening night, it still needed more emotion and soul. Her sudden death seemed abrupt. The two lovers didn’t have extended passionate moments. Their connection and chemistry could have been stronger. The inevitable death was inevitable, but it wasn’t heartbreaking and didn’t make me see enough theatricality and dramatics during the moment. Marta Domingo could alter something here to enhance the effect. Machaidze is talented and should be able to follow through. I only know that the soprano must appear to be living the role.

Chacón-Cruz sang with excellent technique and sound with a youthful, real characterization. Was he as dynamic as some of the great tenors of this and the prior century? Did his sound ring forth memorably? His performance was adequate; his voice, solid; and we liked him.

Domingo sang well with the mature, weathered voice of an older artist who is able to stay on top of his technique and still create memorable characters, which is admirable and quite frankly, almost miraculous at his age of 73.

Bass Soloman Howard as Doctor Grenvil has a lush, rich sound. But he didn’t appear to be a doctor that anyone would have much confidence in. He was like a friend in the room and lacked the professionalism of an MD. Vanessa Becerra (Annina) was lovely and concerned. Daniel Armstrong as Marquis D’Obigny was engaged in voice and character. Brenton Ryan (Gastone) and Daniel Mobbs (Baron Douphol) faded into the ensemble.

Marta Domingo is the invisible star of this production. Her blocking was detailed and her directions to the singers were plentiful and specific, which has enabled them to portray their roles with developed characterizations. Her concept of production design matches her dedication to this production.

Conductor and LA Opera Music Director James Conlon keeps the orchestra moving swiftly with sensitivity toward the singers. During one sequence, I caught him mouthing the words from memory. His energy and dedication to the opera at hand motivates the orchestra.

Marta Domingo has created a lavish production. All of the singers gave solid performances. When each component is pieced together like a puzzle, the parts equal a successful whole. This “Traviata” is memorable and fulfilling and worthy of the standing ovation it received. I definitely recommend it to new opera goers because it exposes them to dazzling visuals and well-sung melodies. With more pathos, it could be a 10. Everything considered, this “Traviata” rates a 9.

Director and Production Designer: Marta Domingo
Conductor: James Conlon
Lighting Designer: Alan Burrett
Choreographer: Kitty McNamee
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Costumes: LA Opera Costume Shop
Wigs: LA Opera Wig and Make-Up Department
Set constructed by San Diego Opera Scenic Studio

Plácido Domingo & Nino Machaidze                                      (Photo: Craig Mathew)

Plácido Domingo & Nino Machaidze
(Photo: Craig Mathew)