Opening nights at the opera are usually exciting and last night's opening of Verdi's tragedy La Traviata was particularly so for several reasons. An important one for us is that we have watched City Lyric Opera grow from its inception, back when it was called A.R.E. Opera. We love the idea that it is gynocentric, giving opportunities to female conductors and directors. What is important for the company is that they have outgrown church basements and black box theaters, presently performing in the charming theater at The Sheen Center which has a real proscenium arch with curtains, comfortable raked seating, a reception area, and room for a chamber orchestra.
This chamber orchestra, led by rising star Maestro Michelle Rofrano (no relation to the young Count Rofrano in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier), comprised a dozen strings, augmented by flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and timpani. They responded with agility to Mo. Rofrano's expressive hands in which no baton was needed.
Verdi's highly evocative music was given a fine reading with no radical departures but with subtle shadings and excellent balance. The dynamics were successful with the volume kept down during the arias but heightened for emotional moments. It is easy to see why Mo. Rofrano's star is on the ascendance.
We can say the same thing about the singers. How satisfying it felt for us to see and hear singers known to us from varied other performances with other companies--all together on the same stage, creating an effective ensemble feel. We credit Director R. Lee Kratzer for eliciting dramatically meaningful performances from the singers.
As the conflicted tragic heroine, we heard soprano Laura Soto-Bayomi who ably demonstrated Violetta's emotional growth from party girl to a woman in love and finally to a woman facing her death with fortitude. Her instrument is a powerful one with a brilliant upper register, as we noted recently when she performed in the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda for Opera Hispanica. It's a pleasure to witness a major talent with the versatility to perform such divergent roles.
As her ardent and impetuous young lover, we heard tenor Colin Aikins who was convincing in his portrayal. In Act I, he was shy and awkward, finally, with a big push from his copain Gastone, getting to meet the woman he has worshipped from afar for an entire year. In Act II, having gotten Violetta out of Paris and into the countryside, he has gained a measure of self confidence, delivering "Dei miei bollenti spiriti" with panache. Watching his spirits collapse when he reads Violetta's "dear John" letter was heartbreaking. The peak of his performance came in Act III when his anger exploded and his voice expanded to fit the emotion. Casting a young man in this role made the entire situation far more believable. We heard Mr. Aikins recently portraying a father in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard where he is a master's degree student.
As Père Germont, we heard baritone Sejin Park who impressed us with his portrayal of a bourgeois paterfamilias, anxious to protect the good name of his family. He entered sternly but softened as he realized that his son's mistress was honorable and dignified. His rich round baritone was employed with admirable phrasing and dynamics. It was a memorable performance. We first heard Mr. Park at Santa Fe Opera where he portrayed the desperate Enrico in Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor. Again, we were impressed by the artist's versatility.
A character that usually fades into the background is Flora, Violetta' friend and party-giver. Not this time! Mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas has a huge instrument that, along with some clever stage business and eye-catching costuming, filled the theater whilst tickling the ear. We loved the part in Act III in which she attacks her lover for his philandering. We have heard Ms. Armas more times than we can count and she has always given 110%.
Another artist we have heard before is baritone Lucas Bouk who made a grand entrance in Act III as Baron Douphol, Violetta's wealthy "protector", striding in with an air of possessiveness and a massive fur coat.
Tenor Morgan Mastrangelo gave a fine portrayal of Gastone who sets the plot in motion by bringing his friend Alfredo to the party and literally pushing him toward Violetta, then spying on the two of them-- stage business that set him apart from the crowd of partygoers.
The role of the modest Annina was performed by soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano who was not given any stage business to make her stand out, which was appropriate to the role.
Flora's unfaithful "protector" , the Marchese was played by bass-baritone Jonathan Harris whose reaction to Flora's accusation injected a note of humor. The chorus did a fine job in Act III singing the matador song and the staging was well done.
There were many other imaginative touches like the bird sounds heard before Act II and the howling wind before Act IV. However, we found other directorial decisions less than enchanting. We attended with two friends and none of us could understand the "concept". We once saw a film version starring Teresa Stratas in which the overture was accompanied by a scene of the dying Violetta witnessing "removal men" carting off her belongings with the opera itself performed as flashbacks. It was cinematic and it worked.
In Ms. Kratzer's version, there appeared to be a coffin covered with camellias, in a room filled with people. Was this meant to be a funeral? Violetta rises from what might be a bier and it seems as if her spirit reminisces about her life. In the final scene, which was awkwardly staged with Violetta getting in and out of bed several times, her "spirit" rises up and walks offstage. It just didn't work for us and interfered with the tragic ending.
In Act II, the silvery ribbons which were so effective in Act I fought with the countryside setting which was weakly established by a few green carpets on the ground, looking like putting greens, and a line of laundry which Alfredo proceeded to dump into a basket. There is something in the libretto about "washing away the shame" and we wondered whether this was meant to be symbolic. There were puffy white things scattered constantly in almost every scene; were they meant to be camellias or bloody tissues? Or both? And the valise filled with the white things? None of this worked.
We don't mind if a director has something new to say about a masterpiece but all this nonsense struck us as attempts to call attention to the director's "originality". It certainly didn't serve to make the work any more relevant. There was no sense of time or place. Colorful costumes (by Camilla Dely) suggested modernity but we all know that the story is very much of the past. We no longer have "courtesans" and a young woman's marriage would not be affected by her brother having an affair. The woman would have been invited to her sister-in-law's wedding! And when the libretto speaks of Violetta leaving in a coach, we think horses.
Ms. Kratzer is certainly not alone in falling victim to this Eurotrash sensibility. The Metropolitan Opera has set a very poor example. Their La Traviata with the huge clock and Dr. Death was even worse. We feel very strongly that opera does NOT NEED TO BE MADE RELEVANT. It only has to be made musical and beautiful. We in the audience should feel free to draw analogies on our own and to appreciate differences in contemporary mores. We don't see anyone running around the Metropolitan Museum of Art, painting over the Rembrandts trying to make them relevant.
We shall now step off our soapbox and praise City Lyric Opera for their fine casting and to congratulate them on their new home. We invite your comments below, especially if you disagree.
© meche kroop