A telling "Traviata" opens LA Opera season

traviata-mathews.jpgNino Machaidze as Violetta and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Alfredo. Photo: Craig Mathew / LA Opera

"La Traviata" can withstand almost anything. It's nearly indestructible -- Verdi's brilliant work asks only: Can the cast sing and act reasonably well? Does the conductor observe the score's built-in drama. And do the director and designer allow the piece its storyline impact?

It hardly takes more than that -- and the audience bounded to its feet with noisy abandon when LA Opera brought it to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at last Saturday's season opener.

In fact, you can call this "Traviata" irresistible. Once again, Nino Machiadze -- who is to LA Opera what Anna Netrebko, that other Slavic soprano, is to the Met -- put another notch in her versatility chart in the starring role. (Remember her smartly ironic cartoon of a character in "Turk in Italy"? Her flamboyant Thaïs, her delicate Juliette?)

This time, when able to shed the production's flashy but wrong-headed guise of a 1920's flapper, she moves full-bore into the wrenching conflicts of Violetta, the rich Parisian libertine who never thought she could find love, but ultimately sacrifices her heart's desire in order to salvage his middle-class honor.

And savvy singer that she is, Machiadze (Mahk-ee-ahd-zee) hit all of the score's emotional targets spot on -- the coloratura glories of "Sempre libera" (that vivid declaration of free-will), the limpid tones of "Addio, del passato" (a backward glance of resignation) -- although it must be said that the drop-down from full-throated passion to long-lined soft singing of desolation was less than smooth.

In Marta Domingo's often-ridiculous staging, one of many permutations by the company chief's wife, this Violetta rose to the classic Romantic challenge, based on the 1846 social tragedy, "Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas fils -- even while made to slink about in a clingy satin gown and feather boa like a good little vamp and arrive in a 1929 Chrysler limo to a makeshift garage party (that should have been her chandeliered salon.)

Never mind the clash between stern bourgeois codes of the time and the demi-monde counter-culture of glittery courtesans. Here, what clash?

But mostly the cast triad came through. Arturo Chacón-Cruz, a sweetly smitten Alfredo, looked the callow part and sang with delectably pleasing tone and a cry in his voice reminiscent of Jussi Björling. Plácido Domingo, the headliner, gave an object lesson in how not to be a stoic paterfamilias but rather a deeply pained father trying only to release his son from a fallen woman, however full of nobility and pathos she may be.

What remains unforgiven in this staging are the ignored capstones Verdi so carefully constructed.

In act two, Violetta has sorrowfully agreed to separate from Alfredo without telling him; the two stand in the study exchanging remarks, but apart. At the climactic moment before she goes on an errand the orchestral music accelerates in a crescendo leading to her outburst, "Amami, Alfredo" ("Love me, Alfredo"), but -- here -- she does not run across the room to embrace him, uttering these words for the last time. She's already been bopping around near him and is prematurely at his side. Dropped drama.

And in her famous death scene the tubercular heroine is supposed to be sickly weak. But here she jumps up and down, up and down from the bed -- so Verdi's drama also evaporates for that other well-known orchestral cue: a feverishly rapid scale of rhythmic urgency that signals Violetta's last breathless surge of strength, finally impelling her to her feet before collapsing. "Rinasce," she says, "I'm reborn." Anti-climactic here.

Elsewhere, while she sings "Ah, fors' è lui," the sort of self-questioning thing Hamlet utters, she gets bothered by a maid helping her on and off with a dressing gown -- so that the shmata action takes focus.

I almost wonder if Ms. Domingo ever listens to the music.

Surely not, if you hear the prelude -- music of tone-setting pathos that bears your undivided attention. But while James Conlon is conducting it she stages a vignette: street walkers picking up johns and one of them nearly doing a pole dance against a lamp post. Similarly, Flora's party scene opens with guests doing the charleston, no matter that Verdi's unsyncopated rhythms don't match.

Looking for a correction, one full of poetic insights? Rent the DVD "Becoming Traviata" with Natalie Dessay, whose director (Philippe Béziat) and conductor (Louis Langrée) lead the way in a creative montage of analytic rehearsal and performance.

Watch the trailer at IMDb.

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