Sanitized tragedy: La traviata in MinnesotaReview
On Saturday May 4, Minnesota Opera closed their season with Verdi’s La traviata at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. When the curtain came up there was a palpable excitement from the audience for this classic opera.
Nicole Cabell was a stunning Violetta and showcased a sublime tone that was best showcased in pianissimo sections in Act III. Jesus Leon was an eager Alfredo Germont. Bergan Baker as Flora was the life of the party, and surprisingly her period ball gown was swapped in Act III for some pants and a riding crop (costumes by Isabella Bywater).
It was conductor Christopher Franklin’s debut with the company. Unfortunately, there were a few musical hiccups and ensemble collaboration issues, especially in the Act I “Brindisi”. This production has the conductor and three main singers double cast, so perhaps there was a lack of rehearsal. But otherwise, Verdi’s music was given its due (though I believe “Addio del passato” was cut short.)
The vocal powerhouse of the night was Joo Won Kang as Giorgio Germont. His resonant baritone cut through to the back of the hall all night. As usual the Minnesota Opera chorus came out with a vivacious energy and brilliant costumes.
Stage director Louisa Miller took a Pretty Woman approach to the story (on posters around the city it is even being hailed as “the story that inspired Pretty Woman.“) I was personally hoping for a more sombre look at Violetta Valéry’s story to contrast with the season opener, La rondine - a softer, less tragic look at a kept woman having love find her.
La traviata is a love story doomed from the beginning, and from the way this production was staged it made some forget about Violetta’s illness. (There were some first time opera goers around me who gasped in shock when Doctor Grenvil says she will die soon, as if they had forgotten she had been sick all along!) It was unclear whether this was an intentional choice by Ms. Miller to cover up her impending doom.
Overall, there could have been more action onstage; as the run progresses I am sure the performers will get more comfortable within the drama. Violetta’s most vulnerable moments were during the overtures behind a scrim. In the initial overture Violetta was seen revving herself up for the party between coughing fits, and before the final act Violetta dreams that Alfredo is still with her.
These were the only glimpses at Violetta’s inner life; I wish there had been more of her struggles revealed during the action of the opera. For example in her first interactions with Alfredo, there was little indication of the trepidation and mixed feelings towards his declaration of love that fuels the famous aria “E strano…Sempre libera.” The darker side of her life seemed to be sanitized in this production. Her gaiety seemed forced in Act I, and in Act III her death did not seem all that painful. (Perhaps this reveals my weakness for the angstier productions.)
But despite a few qualms, it is always exciting when an opera company puts on a fine production that will introduce a timeless classic to sold out audiences, and those new to opera!