Left wanting more: La traviata in ChicagoReview
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2018-19 season has been punctuated by several Italian blockbusters, including Puccini’s La bohème, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and, as of this weekend, La traviata.
Albina Shagimuratova has become something of a regular feature at LOC, having sung Gilda (2012-13), Lucia (2016-17), and Elvira (2017-18) to great acclaim, she now returns as the iconic Violetta Valéry. The 19th-century Italian coloratura roles are Shagimuratova’s calling cards and it’s easy to hear why: unforced in its brilliance and seamless in its lyricism, her instrument is virtually perfect for this repertoire. And the audience, rightfully, acknowledged this fact with an instantaneous ovation at the final curtain of Saturday’s performance.
Where was the seduction, the gaiety, the initial cynicism-turned-ardor, the exuberance, the frailty, the endearing worldliness of this character?
While there were beautifully-sung moments throughout the evening, what I felt lacking was virtually everything else. Where was the seduction, the gaiety, the initial cynicism-turned-ardor, the exuberance, the frailty, the endearing worldliness of this character? This is a woman who is supposed to have Paris—and by extension, us, the audience—eating out of the palm of her hand. Yet, the Violetta we saw on Saturday evening felt disengaged and flat.
Part of the problem was in the staging. In the crucial Act I party scene, where we are meant to meet Violetta, the magnetically-charming toast of Paris, Shagimuratova made a sullen host, wandering slowly through the sea of chorus-members who—too much like a normal party or high school drama production—clumped unattractively upstage, out of the light. She likewise meandered, eyes downcast, during her signature numbers “Ah, fors’è lui…sempre libera”. These were sung gorgeously, by the way. But watching Shagimuratova felt more like observing a singer in a practice room rather than being charmed by a courtesan flirting with notions of true love.
Exacerbating things further was the total lack of chemistry between Shagimuratova and Giorgio Berrugi as Alfredo. The Italian tenor, making his LOC debut in this production, delivered a fine Alfredo: characterful in voice and spry on stage. But the relationship felt doomed from the beginning and not just because of the opera’s plot. Moments of intimacy felt strained, protracted, and uninvolved.
Giorgio’s lengthy duet with Violetta was truly lovely and elicited a more genuine give-and-take from Shagimuratova.
The stage dynamics improved somewhat in Act II thanks in large part to the Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Giorgio Germont. Imposing in both presence and voice, Lučić commanded the stage with his authority and provided his younger colleagues with some needed emotional fodder during his respective exchanges with Violetta and Alfredo. Giorgio’s lengthy duet with Violetta was truly lovely and elicited a more genuine give-and-take from Shagimuratova. The highlight of the evening for me, though, was Lučić’s affecting performance of “Di Provenza il mar, il suol”.
The LOC’s young artists filled in the opera’s many secondary roles, but deserve principal applause for some of the show’s most committed performances, especially contralto Lauren Decker. The third-year Ryan Opera Center member is by now a veritable veteran of the Lyric mainstage, having appeared in six roles since 2016-17. In this Traviata, Decker is a sympathetic and dutiful Annina.
American mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams makes her LOC debut as Flora. Dressed like a Spanish noblewoman, complete with a large peineta and long, lacey mantilla, Reams was an impeccable hostess and gracious in voice. Her party in Act II was a brilliant splash of color and fun that included large puppets of bulls, matadors, and gender-bending dancers. Cait O’Connor’s costumes are beautiful and, for the most part, stick to 19th-century silhouettes and detailing.
Elsewhere in the production, Riccardo Hernandez’s sets together with Marcus Doshi’s lighting-design provided both elegant and stark contrasts to the more elaborate party scenes, beautifully reflecting Violetta’s precarious state of life.
Director Arin Arbus returns to re-mount her production of La traviata from LOC’s 2013-14 season. Conductor Michael Christie, making his own LOC debut with this run, brings his expertise in new music to bear on this classic score, leading the LOC orchestra with urgency and dramatic sensitivity. (Maestro Christie elaborates on his thoughts about Verdi and opera in America in a wonderful conversation we had prior to Traviata’s opening.)