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This "La Traviata" soars musically, but leaves a lot to be desired in the visual department
Boston Lyric Opera
April 5, 2006
Tenor Garrett Sorenson as Alfredo and soprano Dina Kuznetsova as Violetta. Photo by Eric Antoniou © 2006.
Reviewed by: Paul Joseph Walkowski
It’s hard to believe that when this opera was first introduced in 1853 it was the subject of so much controversy and censorship. Librettist Francesco Maria Piave made the lead character, Violetta, a woman and mere courtesan, the heroine of the story, in a day when nobles were the only ones deemed fitting of any expression of noble deeds; and the censors didn’t like the fact that the opera was set in contemporary France.
After its first performance, the opera was pulled and reworked by Verdi (the audience laughed in parts) until his revised version was ready to be seen again in 1854. While it may have had an ignominious beginning, here it is 2006 and “La Traviata” – the story of fated lovers, separated then reunited in the end -- still draws audiences, defines the singer who takes on the role of Violetta, and seduces listeners with music that is both sweeping and intimate, and a pleasure to the senses.
We enter Boston’s Shubert Theater April 5th with this in mind, as we prepare for Boston Lyric Opera’s rendition of this Verdi favorite, keeping in mind what was done to Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucie De Lammermoor” at BLO last November when a little too imaginative director and set designer smothered the music in coal mine like sets that cast an oppressive pall over the entire event.
Did BLO -- an outstanding regional opera company in every way -- repeat the same mistake here?
Short answer: yes!
It’s easy to rave about performances in this production, but once again it’s hard not to be curious about the stage direction and set design that was provided by director James Robinson and set designer Bruno Schwengl.
This is one of those productions where you have to “conceptualize” what the director and set designer want to convey – a sure sign of trouble for an unsuspecting audience. As earlier, where the director and set designer so smother a performance in "conceptual" scenery, here again we must comment on what was done to this production before commenting on how the performers struggled but eventually overcame it.
This show is in four scenes: the first scene (Act 1) is set all in crimson and black. The women all wore crimson gowns; men wore black pants and shirts with shiny black or magenta vests. The scenery consisted of large oversized ottomans along the front, behind which were three marble steps running the full width of the stage. Set back on the top step was a long banquet table covered with a crimson table cloth, wine glasses and candles. It was all very effective, very colorful and representational of the drawing room of Violetta’s red home. The backdrop consisted of a large crimson tapestry that hung ceiling to floor. It, too, was quite impressive.
It was a good start that went quickly down hill.
The second scene (Act II) used the same three steps, which was a nice touch as it gave everyone a chance to better see the performers when they were on top. However, this scene was supposed to be from inside Violetta’s bedroom – all in eggshell white. Even the costumes were in eggshell, with the exception of Germont who made his entrance all in black. (No problem with costumes by Mr. Schwengl, here). The room had no walls. At the top of the steps was a painted backdrop that looked like a wintry scene from "Dr. Zhivago". A bedroom with no walls and only a couple chairs, dressing bureau and chest, cast against a snow scene in an open-aired room with no walls. Hmmm? Characters came in from the snow (from the top step), apparently, through thin air. Worse, the scene was lit so brightly that it was difficult to watch and at times was down right glaring. I heard comments that this was the worst scene – but that was before the final scene which surely takes a prize for bad judgment.
The third scene (still Act II) was straight from Dante’s Inferno, but was supposed to be a masque ball. All the characters were in either magenta or black with some crimsons. The backdrop, a curtain in purple and black were the same color as the chairs and tables. The warm words of love that flowed from the character’s lips were set against a stone cold backdrop that kept interfering with what the singers were expressing. Colorful? Yes! But I kept drifting in and out – captivated by the music and performances on the one hand – jarred out of this dreamy world by the imagery that was unpleasant and harsh on the other.
The final scene was so bad it’s hard to describe. Scene 4 (Act III) Violetta is stretched flat on a mattress at the front of the stage. No bed; just a mattress. The color all around is a pale green. Behind her at the top of the steps are eight headless mannequins positioned around what looked like a coffin, all covered by a white transparent veil. The backdrop consisted of a faded black and white structure akin to Frankenstein’s castle, or a bombed out city from World War II. Poor Violetta, the sweet voiced Russian soprano, Dina Kuznetsova, looked more like a crazy Lucia, than a dying Violetta. It was so bizarre. What should have been a beautiful scene, was transformed, instead, into a mad scene. There was no warmth, no sense of loss; Violetta looked completely out of place. Perhaps we missed something and somewhere in the libretto we were told that she was assigned to an insane asylum. This was the director’s “vision” of a simple country home far from the city?
For their efforts, director James Robinson gets a “D-”. It would have been an “F” except that Act I did look quite nice. Lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin gets a “D-“ for her harsh lighting throughout; and set designer Bruno Schwengl, gets a “D-“ for sets that were too “conceptual”, especially the final Act where the set was downright bizarre.
But, and here is the good news, with all the visual faults of this production, nothing could take away from the sound, depth and resonance of this magnificent orchestra and performers, led wonderfully by Maestro Stephen Lord.
Lord's conducting elevated this production tremendously. The orchestra was resplendent with expressive shading and calculated fortissimos and pianissimos that both supported and led the singers as needed. As usual, this orchestra is reason enought to attend a live performance.
Singing the demanding role of Violetta Valéry, was Russian-born soprano, Dina Kuznetsova. Ms. Kuznetsova has a lovely voice that can translate quite smoothly from coloratura to dramatic and back again, and explore through phrasing the emotional depths of the moment – whether expressing love and affection or despair and hopelessness. The final Act which is one prolonged death scene is usually Violetta’s opportunity to really bring the audience home and to the heights of involvement with her dilemma. Here, however, while her voice was strong and expressive, the visually stark backdrop left this writer cold and emotionless – and that’s too bad. Here is, yet again, an example of an inexcusable “smothering” of a performance by a self-absorbed director and set designer, played out at the expense of a fine singer.
Singing the role of Violetta’s love interest, Alfredo Germont, was Texas-born tenor Garrett Sorenson. Sorenson who carries a few extra midriff pounds delivered a superb performance and was well-received by this Boston audience. His voice was strong and clear and his diction was crisp. His interaction with Violetta was smooth and considerate, and when the two were on stage together, the vocal chemistry they displayed was a joy to the ears.
Interestingly, the star of the evening was neither of the leads, although both were superbly cast in their roles. The loudest applause at curtain call, and what seemed to me to be the strongest performance overall – at least the one that overcame the scenery -- was delivered by baritone James Westman, singing the role of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. Westman simply took control of the stage and made it his own when he was on it, taking hold of the role and never letting go. He gave one of those performances that becomes inextricably linked to how the character should be sung by future Germonts. Westman had strong stage presence and was able to exploit through his voice every emotion a father could feel in the depths of his soul for his son. Well done!
The cast was filled out nicely by the talents of bass David Cushing, singing the role of Dr. Grenvil; Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Chigas, singing the role of Flora; baritone David Kravitz, singing the role of Marchese D’Obigny; baritone James Maddalena singing the role of Baron Douphol; tenor Alan Schbneider singing the role of Gastone; and soprano Alisa Cassola, singing the role of Annina.
Boston Lyric Opera consistently draws a respectable audience with its fine productions, outstanding orchestra and endless flow of talented singers. It’s just a shame that the last two production have been marred by direction, sets and lighting that simply defy explanation and are in this writer’s judgment inexcusable. The audience deserves more.
Conductor, Stephen Lord
Stage Director, James Robinson
Set and Costumes, Bruno Schwengl
Lighting Designer, Mimi Jordan Sherin