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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'La Traviata'

Natalie Dessay (Violetta, center) and cast in La Traviata, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
It is press week at Santa Fe Opera, and that means that Ionarts is back in the house that John Crosby built. I sat just behind librettist Terry Teachout and composer Paul Moravec for the third performance of their new opera The Letter on Monday night, but since I have the luxury of hearing another performance of the work later tomorrow night, I am holding my review for further thought. The hottest ticket at Santa Fe this year has been Natalie Dessay's debut in the role of Violetta, in a staging of Verdi's La Traviata by Laurent Pelly and his team (see the online score). The company's general director, Charles MacKay, told me this morning (an interview is forthcoming) that the demand for La Traviata was so great that they could have filled the house for three or four more performances. Dessay enjoys her visits to Santa Fe enough that she and her family have purchased a home here, and she has chosen the company for role debuts before, Pamina in 2006 and her first American Amina in the 2004 La Sonnambula.

Not surprisingly, Dessay's voice has not been the same since undergoing surgery to repair vocal nodes. The tone has more complexity while the stunning stratospheric possibilities have contracted slightly (there were a few clicks of empty air in some of the high notes on Tuesday night), meaning that Dessay has moved away from the coloratura roles of her earlier career into other music, like her relatively successful foray into Bach this year on disc. Whatever anyone may have thought about Dessay's voice, it was never going to be an ideal Violetta, without more real power at the top and some general meat on the bones in the middle and low ranges, too.

Laurent Naouri (Germont) and Natalie Dessay (Violetta) in La Traviata, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
With help from conductor Frédéric Chaslin's radical dynamic control of the orchestra, Dessay compensated for these problems by creating a flirtatious, frivolous Violetta who succumbs to more internal melancholy than external suffering. She told the New York Times interviewer that "the thing that I have trouble with is this need for redemption she has. I have to find a way to make it believable. I have to find a way to work on the guilt." Perhaps as a result, her Violetta was compressed (one of the softest outbursts of "Amami, Alfredo!" ever to reach my ears, for example), idiosyncratic in terms of tempo fluctuations, and shining most on the runs and fioriture that sometimes suffer with a more dramatic soprano, but unable to rise above the amassed chorus at the end of the second act.

Perhaps to go with this characterization, director Laurent Pelly and his team created a minimalistic, even drab staging. Chantal Thomas's set consisted of countless, haphazardly arranged metallic gray rectangular slabs (packing boxes? sarcophagi?), connected by staircases of various sizes as in an Escher drawing. Overall it was ascetically sparse, serving as both party scene and, covered with drop clothes, the shuttered apartment for the final act, while a swath of green grass brought in from one side evoked the country home of the second act. Even the costumes, by Pelly and associate designer Jean-Jacques Delmotte, were mostly starved of color, after the flapper hot pink in which Dessay opened the opera, with a memorable ululation recalling an Offenbach can-can girl (or, because of the bright orange hair, Cyndi Lauper just wanting to have fun). It was a far cry from the Pelly team's previous outings at Santa Fe, a technocolor Platée in 2007 and a luxurious, fairy-tale Cendrillon in 2006.

Natalie Dessay (Violetta) at the conclusion of La Traviata, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
In his Santa Fe debut Albanian-born tenor Saimir Pirgu brought a voice more light and airy than heroic to the role of Alfredo, a schoolboy poet more than a Romantic heavyweight. He was more than a few times behind the beat of Chaslin, who tended toward quick tempi, and the high notes were small and sometimes off pitch. The most robust voice of the principals was the Germont of Laurent Naouri, whose gruff baritone had enough kick when he needed it but was not always at a roar like others in the role. (Germont's beard and shining top hat may have been modeled on Giovanni Boldini's famous portrait of the elder Verdi.) Current and former apprentices filled out most of the supporting cast, with the fetching Emily Fons standing out as Flora and the versatile Tom Corbeil (more on him later in the week) as the Marquis d'Obigny. Wagne Tigges was a particularly stentorian Baron Douphol, an arrogant foil to Alfredo.

Other Articles:

George Loomis, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 10)

Scott Cantrell, 'La traviata' refreshed but disjointed at Santa Fe Opera (Dallas Morning News, August 7)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Hyperactive Dessay upstages Violetta in soprano’s “Traviata” debut (South Florida Classical Review, August 7)

Allan Kozinn, Heroines Sing Amid a Landscape of Boxes and an Egg of a Temple (New York Times, August 6)

Anne Midgette, In Santa Fe, Concepts Without Connections (Washington Post, July 27)

Kyle MacMillan, "La Traviata" triumphs in Santa Fe (Denver Post, July 12)

Photo Journal: Dessay and Pirgu Star in Santa Fe Traviata (Playbill Arts, July 9)

John Stege, L'Amour to La Morte (Santa Fe Reporter, July 8)

Mike Silverman, Dessay takes on Verdi's Violetta for 1st time (Associated Press, July 6)

Craig Smith, 'La Traviata' opens SFO season with power, passion (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 4)
The divertissement in the second part of Act II was handled by the chorus, with only two actual dancers in a comic pantomime (returning in the third act to grope their way suggestively across the stage as the carnival music is heard outside Violetta's window), the women standing on the boxes in fashion gowns like mannequins and the men singing as the matadors. It was a curious misstep to have the chorus sway in time in the Act II finale, where there is not really any mention of dance in the libretto. Even worse, the chorus milled around the stage distracting from the exquisite music that introduces the third act, the men covering the boxes with cloth and the women ritually stripping Violetta of her jewelry and fine clothes. Pelly opted to make the somber, funereal nature of this music clear by staging Violetta's burial procession across the stage in the prelude to Act I, when it is first heard, with Alfredo observing at a distance. Only then did those strange metallic boxes most seem like the variously sized mausolea of a Parisian cemetery like Père-Lachaise.

In so many ways it was a quiet, even gentle La Traviata, which might disappoint someone who loves a more conventional version of this opera. The whole experience, staging and music, had a veiled, ambiguous quality I associate less with La Traviata than with something like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (speaking of which, I am putting in my request for Dessay to bring her recently acquired Mélisande to Santa Fe, which last mounted it in the 1970s). Even the shattering ending of the opera was deadened emotionally by having all of the other characters back quietly off stage as Violetta began her final speech, her brain starved of oxygen and making her believe that she is well again. As she sang out her final high note, Violetta collapsed on the stage, alone in death.

This production of La Traviata will be repeated five more times at Santa Fe Opera, through August 29. At the final three performances (August 22 to 29) Anthony Michaels-Moore replaces Laurent Naouri as Germont and Nicholas Pallesen fills in as Baron Douphol.

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