A “new” production of La traviata shared the buzz opening weekend at Glimmerglass Festival. Nonetheless, as a co-production with Washington National Opera (and a handful of other opera companies because this is how opera sustains itself these days,) it was seen first at the Kennedy Center last Fall as its season’s gala opening.
My review then works as something of a re-examination. Verdict: it remains a stunning production visually, and, to my mind, Artistic Director Francesca Zambello’s dark framing of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s dramatic opera (about a famed courtesan who has “wandered off the path [of virtue]” and lies dying shunned by society) as a concept holds up as sound and emotionally compelling.
“What’s new?” is both the cast and conductor, and, although the WNO’s team had much going for it, at Glimmerglass conductor Joseph Colaneri brings his special affinity for the work to a most satisfying outcome. He draws out the intimacy of these relationships and the fragility of our heroine through his insistence on reining in both orchestra and singers. ‘Soft and delicate’ wins the day.
Colaneri argues musically from the podium that this is exactly what Verdi was going for in this middle period of a long life as opera-maker: la zona intima. Equally important, the Glimmerglass stage-audience relationship allows for this intimacy in its configuration, size, and warm acoustics. Just as Colaneri called it in his pre-show remarks yes, I heard Verdi’s well-known and much-beloved score “like the ink is wet.”
In soprano Amanda Woodbury, Colaneri and Zambello have found just the right interpreter of Violetta Valéry for their combined vision. Woodbury is dazzling and plays the part always on the edge – one moment a feverish, voluptuous hedonist determined to seize every last drop from life to the end and the next a wraith collapsing from the strain of even sipping a thimble-full of precious air into those diseased lungs. How she does this so convincingly while at the same time supporting and spinning out the most pianissimo lines is the soprano’s own death-defying feat. And Woodbury does it – over and over. As she sings, she draws us ever closer to hear those precious vowel sounds – yearning with her to push back time and catch just one more gossamer line.
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If you’d caught the WNO production at the Kennedy Center (or read the review,) you would remember that Zambello set the whole opera as Violetta’s feverish flashback in her final days by using Verdi’s prelude to stage a ward scene in a tubercular sanatorium. Remember, the disease was nineteenth century’s scourge, equivalent to the AIDS epidemic as it shot through our communities in the 1980’s. Family and friends were afraid and often withdrew, leaving the victims to die alone in hospital beds. Zambello recreates unflinchingly the cold sterility of the hospital and a solitary death by wasting-away.
We are never allowed to forget death is stalking our heroine. The set and costumes of the party scene in Act I have a distinctly danse macabre look. We see the party, her friends, and even her love Alfredo, when he appears, through her eyes swirling around as if in a last feverish hallucination.
Kang Wang, a tenor who hails from Harbin, originally a cold “outpost” in northeastern China but also famous for its music and its ice sculptures, sings the role of Alfredo. Theirs is an unlikely match that makes their story all the more poignant. When Alfredo first sees Violetta he seems dazzled dumbstruck in the presence of this Parisian-society courtesan. His provincial sincerity makes it believable that he is already smitten and that he would wear his love on his sleeve. First he launches into a grand toast to impress her and fit in, “Libiamo, libiamo, ne’ lieti calici” then, having seen her stumble and reveal her frail health, when they are alone he holds back nothing in his confession of love from the first day he saw her, “Un di felice.”
La traviata at Glimmerglass Festival closes August 24, 2019. Details and tickets
If Wang still wants for something I might call “elasticity” in an Italian tenor’s lingering suspension on a high note before resolving a phrase, his voice and manner nonetheless have great presence. Verdi’s beautifully melodic aria moving to duet, when Violetta responds to his character’s strength and unvarnished ardor, is most believable in the approaches of Wang and Woodbury. It becomes a real conversation when Violetta, first somewhat mystified, then coy and teasing even provoking, meets his undaunted passion. Just as Alfredo’s character wins Violetta over, this singer and his interpretation does so for us by act’s end.
With the rise of the Act II curtain, the audience gets to see something of the coziness of the Glimmerglass extended family with neighbors’ domesticated animals led on stage to add charming touches, including a hunting dog and a chicken.
The intimate-scaled drama really comes together in Act II. It’s as if Verdi is working in the medium of film, cinematically tinkering with a series of close ups. He has set this act appropriately in a country home where the lovers have fled to in the hopes of restoring Violetta’s health.
Their country idyll soon comes to an end. First Alfredo’s dispatches himself to Paris to raise emergency funds to pay their expenses. In his absence his father, Georgio Germont, appears and confronts Violetta. He wants this demi monde of such questionable reputation to break off her dalliance with his son, one that threatens to ruin his family’s reputation and in particular his daughter’s chances of a respectable marriage.
Adrian Timpau has been called “the ideal Verdi baritone,” and he delivers a great sound in the role of Germont from his first entrance and note, appropriately patriarchal and commanding. If physically he is not quite convincing (as he appears to be from the same generation as his son,) he nonetheless proves dramatically persuasive as he strategically puts forth his case to Violetta.
Verdi seems at his most inspired dramatically writing these father (or father-figure) and daughter scenes. Here is where we see Woodbury’s singing power unleashed and matched evenly in the dramatic face-off with Timpau. Violetta is faced with the most heart-wrenching choice, but ultimately is convinced and sacrifices her love, earning Germont’s admiration.
Timpau ratchets up the emotion further in the scene following, alone with his son. It’s a well-conceived dual-generational clash, and Germont loses this match of wills. Timpau and Wang are at their best in this strong man/strong voice show down. We also witness the power of love turned to jealousy as Alfredo suddenly spins Violetta’s departure into a choice to return to her former life and lover.
Because of the tight focus on relationship drama, Verdi never gives us big chorus numbers. In Act III, we do get another party scene with music of revelry, chamber chorus, and even a small “dance entertainment.” With four gypsy-girls banging tambourines and a matador-picador duo miming a bullfight, the lovely dancer-turned-choreographer Andrea Beasom teases us and we want to see more of her work.
The drama comes to a climax in Act III when Alfredo creates a powerful showdown with the Baron (Jonathan Bryan) and then denounces Violetta publicly and cruelly. Wang channels out-of-control anger to nail this scene. As Violetta lies collapsed and sprawled across the gaming table, he flings money into the air that rains down on her. When his father appears, even he is shocked at his son’s behavior and denounces him.
It is to the credit of these performers that Zambello’s conceptual take never straitjackets them into becoming mere hallucinations. Over the course of this production’s iteration, the three leads in particular give substance to the arc of their characters.
The arresting set, lights and costumes are all still there — from the blood red curtain with a pair of eyes that haunt us to the hallucinatory danse macabre motifs in the party scenes, all candelabra and Halloween. But what we will remember most is seeing this as an opera of intimate relationships. Woodbury’s exquisite delivery of “Addio! del passato” can never be erased, and the tender duet of hope in the lovers’ final reunion, “Parigi, o cara” must carry the lovers into the afterlife.
La traviata. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel La Dame aux Camélias. Stage Direction by Francesca Zambello. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri. Set Designed by Peter J. Davison. Lighting Designed by Mark McCullough. Costumes Designed by Jess Goldstein. With Amanda Woodbury, Kang Wang, Adrian Timpau, Kameron Lopreore, Jonathan Bryan, Schyler Vargas, William Clay Thompson, Lindsay Metzger, Bryn Holdsworth, Aaron Crouch, Allen Michael Jones, Peter Morgan and The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Presented at The Glimmerglas Festival . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Rating – 4
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission of 20