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'Traviata' Does Not Defy Conventions

Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Alfredo) and Elizabeth Futral (Violetta) in La Traviata, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Alfredo) and Elizabeth Futral (Violetta) in La Traviata, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Washington National Opera opened its fall season on Saturday night, with an ultra-conventional but visually lavish production of Giuseppe Verdi's classic La Traviata. One of the so-called Big Three from the ground-breaking middle of Verdi's operatic career (see the online score), the opera's libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, a poet so compliant that he became a sort of punching bag for the composer, is a miracle of dramatic concision. In this opera, you can actually watch Verdi forcing the conventions of Italian opera that he inherited -- the cavatina, the cabaletta, the banda, the toast scene -- to bend to the telling of a story. That story, about a courtesan who finds love outside of society's moral strictures and is punished for it, also resonated personally with Verdi. A widower, he resented the criticism he received from his contemporaries for living with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi before they were ultimately married.

This production was billed essentially as a vehicle for soprano Elizabeth Futral, a familiar and beloved singer among Washington audiences. She has been very impressive in bel canto repertoire like Rossini's Siege of Corinth in Baltimore and Otello with Washington Concert Opera, and especially her frothy Adina in Washington National Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore. Her Violetta, not surprisingly, was in a similar vein, with pyrotechnical fioriture in the Act I brindisi (one of the pieces chosen, not coincidentally, for the publicity video embedded below) and a radiant high note added to the end of Sempre libera. However, Verdi made the role not only like Adina but also called for a stronger low range and a heavier lyric and spinto quality. These things Futral just does not have, and it puts the role just out of her reach, vocally speaking, although her slender figure made her one of the most dramatically convincing Violettas, an elegant counterpart to the vamp brought to life by Anna Netrebko in Salzburg.

Verdi, La Traviata, Washington National Opera, 2008,
with Elizabeth Futral and Lado Ataneli

It was an off night for tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, a younger singer favored by Domingo in Washington, as he struggled with intonation problems in the role of Alfredo. In the cadenza of the Act I duet ("Un di felice"), he led Futral so far astray while unaccompanied that the return of the orchestra, in the correct key, was painful. Both lead roles suffered from the current casting tendencies toward considering physical appearance too much instead of choosing the best voice. Dramatic concerns require a balance of the two, but neglecting the latter too much for the former leads to a result just as unsatisfying as the reverse. Baritone Lado Ataneli gave exactly the same sort of performance as he did in the title role of Macbeth two seasons ago. The voice was rich and round in tone, with all the makings of a great Verdian baritone, but he was all over the place rhythmically, too often straying from the conductor and the other singers at his own pace.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, 'Traviata': It's a Start (Washington Post, September 15)

Teresa Wiltz, Let's Go, Verdi! A Change-Up At Nats Park (Washington Post, September 15)

T. L. Ponick, Seductive 'Traviata' Simulcast, live crowds have treat (Washington Times, September 15)
The staging was directed by Marta Domingo, the wife of WNO General Director Plácido Domingo, a production seen here only four years ago, at the end of the company's 2003-2004 season. It is a traditionalist's dream, with grand, beautiful sets and elegant period costumes, designed by Giovanni Agostinucci. The only oddity is that the the second scene of the second act, in which "Violetta's friend Flora is hosting a party" (as the program synopsis put it), appears to be taking place in a bordello. The red-velvet curtains, nude portraits, and scantily clad tarts in alcoves above do not fit with the elegant world of the courtesan (explained by Marta Domingo herself in her program note). Otherwise, the director has let the opera play itself out without much intervention, down to the actors themselves seeming to draw, all'improvviso, on a hackneyed repertory of standard opera gestures. There was enough random fist clenching for the entire season.

The WNO orchestra played fairly well, with nice oboe and violin solos and perhaps too much power from the brass and percussion, and the violin section will hopefully iron out the kinks in the lower desks as the production continues. Both players and the cast on the stage had to contend with the bed-headed Dan Ettinger, making his debut on the company podium. A one-time opera singer recently turned conductor, Ettinger was the least predictable part of the performance. He inexplicably stretched out parts of the score that wanted to drive forward, like the chorus's condemnation of Alfredo's caddish behavior at Flora's party ("Va, va, va, va" -- treated like each statement had a fermata) and the final chords after Violetta's death, at the same time rushing past significant moments. It is always good to have an over-familiar score cleared of its varnish and grime, but most often Ettinger's choices seemed to come more from a willful individuality than a careful consideration of musical imperatives.

Performances of Verdi's La Traviata continue at Washington National Opera on September 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, and October 2 and 5, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Anonymous said...

the clip sounds like violetta's part of the brindisi and then part of "di provenza" to me, not "sempre libera."

Charles T. Downey said...

You are quite right: thanks for noticing that. The accidental parenthesis misplacement has been corrected. And, yes, Lado Ataneli is not singing "Sempre libera" either.

Charles T. Downey said...

Oh, and reading Anne Midgette's review just now reminded me that I neglected to mention the dumb show that Sra. Domingo added to the third act, complete with the carnivalesque, top-hatted figure of death, swirling fog, and ominously passing scythe. Note to the director -- any viewer with half a brain knows already that Violetta is going to die. What Verdi and Piave did was subtle. Leave it be.

Anonymous said...

You mean the fourth act. By the way, what do you think of Midgette?

Charles T. Downey said...

No, I mean the third act, the last one. In the form in which it is usually performed, the original second and third acts are joined together.

As for Anne Midgette, I posted an appreciation of her work as a critic when she was appointed as Music Critic at the Washington Post. As I said then, she is a tough-minded and incisive critic, which is the best kind. As I also made sure to disclose then, I have been doing some freelance reviewing for the Post since April.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the comment about the Tenor's intonation. I Did feel that it was within Ms. Futral's range though...

Also... one thing that was very distracting about Ettinger's conducting was the occasional stomp he gave to the podium. I think that is just such a bad habbit.