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Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.
21 Oct 2008

La Traviata at the Washington National Opera

Staging La traviata for an opera company these days is an experience akin to that of a symphony’s orchestra programming Mozart: a great idea fraught with disaster.

G. Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta Valéry (Elizabeth Futral), Alfredo Germont (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), Flora Bervoix (Margaret Thompson), Giorgio Germont (Lado Ataneli), Annina (Micaela Oeste), Gastone (Yingxi Zhang), Baron Douphol (Nathan Herfindahl), Marchese D'Obigny (Grigory Soloviov), Doctor Grenvil (Oleksandr Pushniak), Solo Dancer (Eric Rivera). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Dan Ettinger. Director: Marta Domingo.

Above: Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.


The score, with its Mozartean transparency, magnifies any musicianship misstep – a single wrong note! – tenfold. Its blend of vocal virtuosity and realistic, if maudlin, plot leaves few creative options to the director (if there are any “modern” traviatas, I’ve never met them…), and demands that the principals merge traditionally “operatic” vocalization with heavily Stanislavskian acting, so often detrimental to sound production. Yet Verdi’s 1853 war horse is a perennial favorite with audiences: the fast-paced, and despite its familiarity and our modern cynicism still heart-breaking melodrama is, above all, eminently watchable. This arresting quality of La traviata may often insulate its troupe, assuring success despite the inevitable mistakes that creep into any live performance, and even larger issues of miscasting and under-rehearsing. Sooner or later, Verdi’s vivid characters take over the most jaded critic, forcing her to set aside her quill. But the assurance of success breeds complacency: all too often, opera companies are happy to rest on Verdi’s laurels, forgetting how difficult to crack this old chestnut of his really is. When I finally caught up with the Washington National Opera’s La traviata (co-produced with the Los Angeles Opera) on October 2nd, that amnesia – whether inherent in the production or brought on by the end-of-the-run fatigue, I cannot say – was painfully in evidence.

Traviata_9_08_85.pngArturo Chacón -Cruz (foreground) as Alfredo and Lado Ataneli (background) as Giorgio Germont. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

Elizabeth Futral as Violetta has clearly learned her arias; the set pieces were technically proficient, sounded well, and deserved their applause. But in the faster-paced declamatory scenes the singer seemed distracted by the demands of the acting and had significant projection troubles. On occasion, Ms Futral appeared to be making a visible, physical effort to push the sound out, which, ironically, made her look like a consumptive patient struggling for breath. Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Alfredo had no problem being heard: he was consistently and almost annoyingly loud; to me, much more nuance was called for, but the audience loved it. The singer, however, seemed mostly in love with himself. He appeared to be having great difficulty tearing himself away from the proscenium long enough to acknowledge the love of his life stationed behind him, or any other characters with whom he was supposedly interacting. As a result, Chacón-Cruz came across as an old-fashioned “tenor” – thankfully, a dying breed among young singers these days.

Clearly, both leads had issues with staying in control of either the vocal or dramatic aspects of their roles. Conductor Dan Ettinger, for his part, was in full control and delighted in exercising it, for instance, by holding each fermata in the score for twice its usual duration. Yet his tempi were often questionable – either too slow, creating additional obstacles for the singers already struggling with projection, or too fast, as in the opening scene, in which both the chorus and the orchestra had tremendous trouble keeping up. The chorus recovered by its second appearance in Act 2 Scene 2; the orchestra, however, did not. Indeed, throughout the performance it exhibited deficiencies in pitch, rhythm, sound quality, and balance inexcusable in a professional ensemble, with the horns particularly problematic.

Traviata_9_08_1#7E05.pngElizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

The most successful aspect of the performance I witnessed was the production itself. Marta Domingo offered traditional but mostly unobjectionable staging, with the single puzzling exception of what was presumably the Spirit of Death lifting and twirling Violetta around the stage during the Act 3 carnival chorus. Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and costumes were spectacular, particularly Flora’s gorgeously crimson multi-level bordello, the sight of which made the audience break into spontaneous applause. Neither the designs nor the direction were created for WNO, however: they have been seen in LA, and are featured on the 2007 Decca DVD recording of the opera with Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón. The exception is an updated version of the not-so-little black dress that Violetta wears to Flora’s bordello party – and it is stunning! Ms Fleming clearly got cheated in the wardrobe department. As for the rest of the production, which closed on October 5th, the fact that my readers will not be able to see it for themselves may be a blessing: for the glorious visuals and the equally glorious sound, I do recommend the DVD.

Olga Haldey

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