Boston Lyric Opera opened its 2014-15 season with a tried and true crowd-pleaser, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. Given BLO’s significant risk-taking this season—two of the four operas are little known: The Love Potion by Frank Martin and Leoš Janáček’s Katyá Kabanová—one might have expected a safely traditional staging of one of Verdi’s most popular works. However, this was not always the case, and when the staging diverged from the norm, the results could range from peculiar to distasteful. The musical performances from cast, chorus, and orchestra, however, were quite fine while the acting was effective.
I’ll air my grievances first. Verdi’s opera has four segments: Act I; Act II, Scenes i and ii; and Act III. The actions of II.i. lead directly and swiftly to II.ii. This production, however, reapportioned the segments into Part 1, Scenes 1 and 2; and Part 2, Scenes 1 and 2, defying the logical chronology of the drama. II.i (Part 1, sc. 2) is set in a country house, but here we had an al fresco setting with an appletree and carpet as picnic blanket. It was distinctly odd to see Violetta picking apples while bidding the maid to “show in” a visitor. If this was merely odd, II.ii (Part 2, sc. 1) was bizarre and distasteful. At a party hosted by Violetta’s fellow courtesan, Flora, many if not most of the guests were semi-clothed and indulging various fetishes. Granted, courtesans were fundamentally prostitutes, but they were cultured, intelligent, wealthy women who entertained the cream of society at their salons; their parties (as opposed to their private, individual assignations) appealed to their guests’ higher impulses. This staging also undermined the dramatic climax when Alfredo publicly insults Violetta and incurs the righteously indignant denunciations of the other guests. One can hardly credit the moral authority of these people in a state of undress. Furthermore, Alfredo’s father, Germont, also steps forward to rebuke him, but are we really to believe that this straitlaced military veteran (missing an arm) would venture into such a bawdyhouse? The stated aim of the production is to depict the late 19th-century transition from courtesans to trophy wives over a period of years, but this creates (at least) two problems: (1) Violetta is seriously ill with consumption at the outset and doesn’t have the luxury of a period of years; (2) leaving courtesans behind in favor of more marriages would indicate an increasing conservatism of Parisian society: how do we reconcile that with the debauched scene at Flora’s party? And there simply cannot be “a significant chronological break [of years] . . . between Parts 1 and 2” if Part 1 ends with Alfredo’s departure for Flora’s party and Part 2 begins with said party.
Happily, if the listener was able to be indulgent with the staging, there were musical rewards aplenty. Soprano Anya Matanovic was making her debut in the notoriously challenging role of Violetta, the “traviata” (fallen woman) of the title. Conventional wisdom has it that this role requires three different types of singer: agile high coloratura, near-dramatic, and full lyric. Matanovic seldom gave any indication of being less at home in any one type. The light, brilliant writing of the famously demanding Sempre libera (“Always free”) came off well, marred only by spread top notes and the imprudent choice—on this evening, at least—to take the optional high E flat at the end. Nonetheless, her galvanizing coloratura credibly suggested Violetta’s faux-happy near-hysteria as she tried to drown out Alfredo’s offstage declaration of love for her. In II.i (Part 1, sc. 2), the most vocally taxing part of the role, Matanovic excelled in the big singing of her dramatic exchanges with Germont. Yet some of her loveliest singing of the evening was her accession to Germont’s request that she renounce Alfredo for the sake of his sister’s wedding; this aria, sung largely piano, had a purity and restraint that tugged at the heart. In Act III (Part 2, sc. 2), the soprano was lyrically beautiful in “Farewell to happy dreams”, otherworldly in “Take this portrait”, and vibrantly joyous as Violetta in her cruelly short revitalization.
Michael Wade Lee was likewise essaying his role, Alfredo, for the first time and was quite successful. He is blessed with an attractive, ringing tenor with an ideal balance of brightness and depth. His characterization of Alfredo was more subtle than many: though his love for Violetta is plain, he is at first slightly reticent in manner, unsure of himself. During Act II, with Violetta fully returning his love, his impulsive and passionate nature is revealed by degrees—for good and ill. Perhaps Lee’s finest music moments were his first declaration of love (“One happy day you appeared”), a model of restrained intensity and beauty, and the short fiery solo before he publicly insults Violetta, attempting to redeem his shamed manhood.
As Alfredo’s father, Germont, baritone Weston Hurt has less to sing than the other leads, but he too makes a convincing character arc. In II.i he is stiffly proper with Violetta but warm and paternal with Alfredo. Later, he witnesses Alfredo humiliating Violetta and harshly reprimands him. In the final act Germont, wracked with remorse, realizes how much harm he has done in the name of his family. Two of Hurt’s musical highlights: his soft-grained duet with Violetta after she has agreed to his request, the two voices combining in elegant, expressive tandem; and his loving (if clueless) beckoning of Alfredo to return home.
I must reserve some praise for the excellent playing of the BLO Orchestra under Arthur Fagen. They infallibly set the mood, often with self-effacing virtuosity, e.g., the introduction to Flora’s party and its entertainment portions. Also, at the very beginning of the opera, the ppp strings materialized out of nothing to describe a mixture of tragedy, hope, yearning, and love, symbolic of Violetta—and indeed the opera itself. Similarly, the BLO Chorus did its work with crisp precision but also with joie de vivre, blazing indignation, humor, et al., as needed. The supporting cast members were reliably professional and frequently more, a constant pleasure to hear and see.
There is certainly nothing wrong per se with rethinking the staging of an operatic warhorse; this is in fact the way to keep it fresh and attract new audiences. But social and historical context as well as dramatic logic must have their due, and this failed to happen in Act II. Nonetheless, those who can put up with the oddities therein (Acts I and III being much more in the mainstream) and who love the splendid music of this Verdi masterpiece, will find much beauty and pathos in the accomplished performances.