In this chamber version of Verdi’s classic opera, La Traviata, In Series dispenses with the pomp and melodrama to find the character study waiting underneath.
Director Nick Olcott may be restrained, in part, by the stripped-down circumstances that the In Series provides – he is required to work on part of an existing set at the GALA Theatre, and the orchestra is reduced to a string quintet plus piano – but he uses the constraints as an opportunity to zero on the subtleties of the opera’s musical-emotional journey.
This aim is achieved thanks to Randa Rouweyha as Violetta, the dying courtesan who gains, loses, and briefly regains one last, true love. Simply put, Rouweyha is this production. Or, at least, it’s all her and Verdi’s timeless music, conducted and arranged by pianist Paul Leavitt so skillfully and with such feeling that you hardly miss the horns, woodwinds, and percussion.
First, her voice: Rouweyha is in fine form both with the more challenging arias and her softer lyricism. Her higher register is liquid and lovely, and she largely pulls off Act I’s coloratura with aplomb, although the slightest strain can be detected. As well, occasionally, she is caught a little pressed for extra breath. Yet it is not for her vocal technique, fine though it is overall, that her performance is highly worthwhile, but rather for her emotional attention.
Not once does she lose track of any of the multiple layers of feeling in the words, and not once do you get the sense that Verdi’s notes are anything but the expression of Violetta’s troubled heart. She turns the harsher consonants of the lyrics into bitter ironies and pulls tentative hope from the soaring vowels. She even finds a way to make the final turnaround moment, from seeming recovery to death, knowing and self-aware, and all the more tragic for it. Her Sempre libera at the end of Act I is a highlight, as well, an open-voiced ride through the soul of a woman wrestling with joy and doubt.
Closes June 28, 2014
In Series at
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20010
2 hours, 30 minutes with 2 intermissions
Mondays and Saturdays
To some degree, the rest of the production seems to pale into a supporting role for Violetta’s journey. Jesús Daniel Hernández, as her lover Alfredo, begins warmly and simply, builds up to the anger of Act III, and finds particular passion in the final scene’s grief. His voice is unflaggingly strong and clear, if occasionally a little colorless (in comparison to Rouweyha, at least). Lunge da lei stands out as quite sublime, as Hernández endows the song with an easy lyricism. His Alfredo is neither boyishly naïve nor excessively impetuous; you almost get the sense that Rouweyha’s Violetta falls for him not because of a great spark between them, but because, in the face of death, she desires to know honest love, and this Alfredo is a worthy, honest man.
As Giorgio, Alfredo’s father, José Sacín is bold of voice, and blends himself well with his duet partners. He comes across as stiff, however, which may not be just the character interpretation; he reads as a moralist who, despite acknowledging Violetta’s emotional sacrifice after he asks her to give up everything, does not seem to quite feel it. Again, everything seems to bolster Rouweyha’s performance primarily.
To some degree, this narrow focus leads to some rougher staging. Everyone makes an excessive use of leaning on chairs in Olcott’s blocking; and while he discovers an interesting straight-from-history moment in his portrayal of Violetta’s consumption at the beginning, after a few initial coughs she hardly even seems sick. While this perhaps allows Rouweyha to focus on conveying Violetta’s inner workings, it is distractingly unrealistic in a way. The sense of Violetta’s position in society is somewhat lost as well, despite a laudable stab on Olcott’s part at expressively staging her precarious social position during Si ridesta in ciel.
Criticisms like this are easily forgotten during the sweep of the opera, however; especially given the beauty of the music as played by Leavitt and his quintet, and sung by the strong, committed ensemble. In the end, the interiority of this La Traviata is a blessing, as long as you are willing to accept it on its terms. It may not be the complete picture, but the side of this story it shows is powerfully expressed and skillfully delivered.