March 03, 2008

Pretty Woman

"No, I haven't gotten a flu shot—why do you ask?"
(Robert Taylor and Greta Garbo in Camille.)


Verdi: La Traviata
Presented by Teatro Lirico d'Europa
Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston
Sunday, March 2, 2008

Teatro Lirico d'Europa's La Traviata this past weekend was, like all their productions, thoroughly traditional and efficiently entertaining. With this opera, though, such an approach makes clear the primacy of Verdi's contribution, the tipping of the scales to favor music over words. As a piece of drama, La Traviata isn't exactly preposterous, but it's hardly Shakespearian in its character development. Puccini's for-all-practical-purposes remake Manon Lescaut is often cited for its striking, tableaux-based approach to storytelling, but Verdi's original has its share of lacunae. Some of the most dramatic points of the plot—the consummation of Alfredo and Violetta's romance, Alfredo's duel with Baron Douphol—happen only in the audience's imagination. The lovers spend more time expressing their love to the audience or to third parties than to each other. Parts of it seem almost to be missing a reel: everything important is either about to happen or has just happened. (The incongruities are heightened when the traditional act breaks are abandoned, as they were here: the curtain comes down on Violetta's "Sempre libera" profession of hedonistic freedom, only to promptly come up again on her happy domestication in the country.)

Part of La Traviata's enduring popularity (the third-most performed opera in the United States, according to Opera America) has to be its aura of sheer fantasy. Dumas fils' La Dame aux camélias had a requisite sheen of romantic longing, but was comparatively clear-eyed about its title character. Verdi and Piave, his librettist, took the novel (and play) and, in the course of jettisoning most of its dramatic logistics, burnished it into the mid-19th-century prototype of every Hollywood hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold scenario ever devised. A courtesan who immediately gives up her life of luxury for a stranger's profession of love? Who goes through all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief when faced with the prospect of separation? Who—and this is crucial—sells her stuff to support her lover? It's every man's dream!

But really, La Traviata's music simply leaves traditional dramatic plotting in the dust. It's the prime masterpiece of the period where Verdi went from a talented master of the Italian operatic tradition to a genius of reinvention: Verdi saw that the conventions of bel canto—the coloratura decoration, the steady build from recitative to cavatina to cabaletta, the diagetic justification for dance and popular music—had matured to the point that their mere presence could have dramatic content above and beyond the story. Violetta's fioritura, Alfredo's tenor ardency, his father's baritonal sterness, the tripping flute thirds of the perennial parties and balls: all those familiar elements start to play off of each other, turning up at inappropriate moments with an ironic charge, standing in for dialogue and plot rather than simply advancing them.

And Verdi's orchestration never fails to astonish with its paradoxical combination of daring and efficiency.Teatro Lirico's usual musical director Krassmir Topolov led an orchestra that fared somewhat better than in last month's Tosca, with fewer sour moments in the strings and a warm, rounded mix from winds and brass—the distant, funereal tattoo behind Violetta's dying "Prendi, quest'è l'immagine" was particularly lovely, the highlight of an afternoon of dignified restraint. Giorgio Lalov's less-is-more direction, too, was unobtrusive and solid: party scenes may have lacked diabolical whirl, but he let intimate conversations unfold with simple stillness. (The one unfortunate exception was the third-act deathbed scene, with Alfredo given a lot of impulsive but directionless stage crossing that only made him seem oddly afraid of his beloved Violetta.)

Some comprimario and secondo roles were doubled up: Vladimir Hristov was both a George Clooney-suave Marchese d'Obigny and a bland Dr. Grenvil; Giorgio Dinev, previously seen enjoyably blustering as Tosca's Spoletta, doddered formulaically as Violetta's servant, but had mischevious sparkle as Gastone—having introduced his friend Alfredo to Violetta, he worked the room, pointing out his handiwork to the other guests, a proud yenta.

Plamen Dmitrov was somewhat stiff and uncharismatic as Alfredo's father Giorgio, but then again, the character is somewhat stiff and uncharismatic, so, intentional or not, it worked. Vocally, Dmitrov seemed to be fighting a cold, saving himself for high notes. Perhaps the bug had spread to Gabriel Gonzalez, singing Alfredo; despite some moments of real power, Gonzalez never got his voice "up and over"—there seemed to be no resonance in his head, the voice stuck in his throat, both intonation and tone frequently flat. (With his limited frequency range and a bleat in his vibrato, he often sounded uncannily like a 78 rpm recording.) As an actor, Gonzalez seemed the most reliant on stock gestures, signaling emotions rather than embodying them, but he did brood effectively.

But La Traviata can only rise on its fallen woman; the joy of this performance was Marina Viskvorkina's excellent Violetta. Viskvorkina put her lovely, sapphire-polish lyric coloratura to unfailingly stylish use—not just a voice, but a real singer. She had the requisite fireworks for Violetta the pleasure-seeker, but also beautifully pared down her tone for the Act II duet "Dite alla giovine" and the high-wire finish of "Addio del passato" in Act III. And her acting was superb—if one never quite ascertained the attraction between Violetta and Alfredo, one got a palpable sense of both her love and the rebuke of her grief. As a character, Violetta is too good to be believe, but portraying her, Viskvorkina was more than good enough to be believable.

5 comments:

A.C. Douglas said...

That's some fine, insightful writing, Matthew. You all but convince that this opera is a genuine music-drama; something most Italian opera is not noted for being.

ACD

P.S. You might want to reconsider your, "...but Verdi's precursor has its share of lacunae." I know you meant to say Verdi's precursor opera, but that's not how it reads.

Matthew said...

You might want to reconsider your, "...but Verdi's precursor has its share of lacunae." I know you meant to say Verdi's precursor opera, but that's not how it reads.

Ah, you're right. "Original" is much better. Make it so!

I was a cavatina junkie from an early age, but I've had good luck convincing more dramatically-inclined skeptics of the viability of bel canto by starting with Verdi and working chronologically backwards. They really were playing around with a kind of musical lingua franca for most of the 19th century, and once you get the hang of it, you hear how dramatically-minded even the more seemingly frivolous composers could be. (Bellini is one of my favorites in this regard—how he can hang a theatrically effective musical flow on even his most ludicrous libretti.)

sfmike said...

I hate seeing this opera in an opera house because the story, for all the reasons you list, is just plain idiotic, and the Death of the Fallen Woman with a Heart of Gold is one of those stories I tend to despise in all of its many goopy, masochistic manifestations.

You're right about the music, though. Verdi was god and so was Rossini (and "music-drama" is a German concept, a.c., the Italian version is simply Opera even though Monteverdi definitely wrote "music-drama"). Bellini and Donizetti tend to be more in the guilty pleasure category for me, but sometimes they're just what the doctor ordered.

A.C. Douglas said...

Sfmike wrote: ...and "music-drama" is a German concept, a.c., the Italian version is simply Opera even though Monteverdi definitely wrote "music-drama".

Au contraire. Music-drama may be the (relatively) modern German term for it, but the concept belongs to opera’s very beginnings as dramma per musica. Italian term, same concept. Indeed, as you above correctly note, Monteverdi, dramma per musica’s first practitioner, definitely wrote "music-drama”.

ACD

acg3 said...

I don't know Bel Canto from Patti LaBelle, but Marina Viskvorkina as Violetta gave one of the greatest artistic performances I've ever experienced. Her voice, acting, and physical beauty were ravishing. I attended the February 29th opening, when Orlin Goranov played Alfredo. His singing was competent, to my innocent ears, but he seems to equate acting with staggering aimlessly about the stage with his head in his hands (just as he did when he played the leads in Tosca and Butterfly earlier in the season). Face-to-face with the object of his passion, Violetta, he behaved like a four-year-old wearing Daddy's shoes. His implausibility made Viskvorkina's aching performance all the more impressive. Her voice and image have been in my head all week since then. If this was all theatrical illusion, give me more.