In Verdi’s bicentennial year, the luster of “Traviata” remains undimmed

By David Fleshler

In Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday anniversary year, “La Traviata” remains his most popular opera.

It is the single most popular opera in the repertoire. La Traviata has been programmed by Florida Grand Opera in no less than 11 seasons, a record tied only by La Bohème and Madama Butterfly. Around the world, it is the opera staged more than any other, with 629 performance runs in the past five years, according to the Operabase website.

Verdi’s opera, which opens April 20 at the Arsht Center in Miami, will be the final work on FGO’s calendar, capping a highly successful season for the company.

What accounts for Traviata‘s staying power? For many listeners, La Traviata and the other great works of Verdi’s middle period—Il Trovatore and Rigoletto—epitomize Italian opera, with their famous arias, evocations of the primal human emotions of love, jealousy and hatred, memorable tunes and plots that are occasionally ridiculous but always dramatic.

La Traviata tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a prostitute who travels in the upper reaches of Parisian society. She is cynical about love, she suffers from tuberculosis and she wants to wring as much pleasure as possible from every remaining moment of her life. Despite her best efforts to remain free, she falls in love with a young man named Alfredo. But his father objects, Violetta reluctantly surrenders him, complications ensue, and then tragedy.

Maria Alejandres

“Violetta is a very strong girl,” said Maria Alejandres, the Mexican soprano who will sing the role opening night. “I think I can understand her psychology. I can get close to her. She knows she’s going to die and she’s living in the moment.

“She doesn’t know if tomorrow she’s going to be alive. She doesn’t believe in love so the first time she meets the man that loves her and that wants to marry her, for the first time she also wants to change her life.”

Alejandres, who made her company debut in the second cast of Lucia di Lammermoor in 2010 and won acclaim in FGO’s Romeo et Juliette last season, said she has long wanted to sing the role, and finally did so for the first time earlier this year at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland. “It was always my favorite opera because it’s so dramatic, and I love all the roles that are dramatic,” she said.

The celebrated Mexico-born tenor Ramón Vargas, with whom Alejandres studied for six years, said she has the ability to do justice to a role that requires coloratura agility, vocal lyricism and dramatic power.

“Violetta is a hard role,” he said. “It is the history of a superficial young lady that transforms herself through the love and suffering. Technically, you need a coloratura soprano for the first act, and to finish the opera as a full lyric voice.

“Maria has the capacity and maturity to do that in a great artistic way. Maria is a rare talent, a combination of musicality, voice, technique and stage presence. All of them make her an extraordinary singer.”

La Traviata was premiered in 1853 at Venice’s famous Teatro La Fenice (which burned down in 1996 and has since been rebuilt). Reviews were mixed. Accustomed to operas set in Rome, medieval times or periods of the mythical past, critics were puzzled by a work that took place among a contemporary milieu of upper-class Europeans. The management of La Fenice tried to get around this by setting the opera 100 years earlier than the modern period called for in the libretto, but that didn’t make much difference. Censors found the subject matter indecent.

The opera’s very opening announces that this is a work like nothing that has come before. Other operas, no matter how tragic, tend to open with boisterous music, giving the audience a jolt to announce that the show was starting. But Traviata opens with whispering violins in music of sadness, pain and regret.

“For me it’s Violetta’s fever when she’s in bed,” said Ramon Tebar, Florida Grand Opera’s artistic director, who will conduct these performances. “The writing sounds weak, as someone who is about to die. She’s trembling. You can feel a little bit of this coldness, that she’s sweating.

“Why did he decide to start it like that? You probably would have expected bass drums and cymbals – Okay, the opera is about to start! No, it’s very wispy, with death already there. This is a serious story. That’s what I love about Traviata.”

Despite its novelties, the opera quickly became one of Verdi’s most popular, seizing the place in the standard repertoire that it holds today. More than most operas, the work’s success or failure rests almost completely on the talents of the singer in the leading roles, and it has become the vehicle for some of the most famous sopranos in history, including Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Ileana Cotrubas and Angela Gheorghiu.

La Traviata has famous melodies, such as the Brindisi, or drinking song, one of those operatic tunes that everyone knows. It has tremendous ensemble scenes—the opening party scene, the deeply moving meeting between Violetta and Alfredo’s father and a sizzling high-society gambling scene in which Violetta’s lovers of past and present confront each other over cards.

Marina Poplavskaya in director Willy Decker’s modern-dress “Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Like many of the most popular operas, La Traviata has been updated and reconceived by ambitious directors who wanted to save it from overfamiliarity and use it as a vehicle for their own creative, and sometimes egotistical, expression. One 1991 version switched Violetta’s illness from tuberculosis to AIDS and moved a party scene to a leather bar. Another set the opera in Nazi-occupied Paris and portrayed her as Jewish. The Metropolitan Opera’s current modern dress staging uses a spare, contemporary set, and what many see as heavy-handed symbolism with a giant clock that’s ticking down the time remaining to Violetta.

FGO’s production will be a traditional one, and it completes a season in which the company has stuck to established repertoire.

Among opera aficionados, it’s common to complain that the big opera houses depend excessively on box-office reliables like Traviata, Carmen and La Bohème, rather than contemporary works, American works, lesser-known works by the great composers or any other alternatives to the same two dozen or so operas heard over and over.

One conductor who might be expected to hold this view is Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of the Sarasota Opera, which has produced several American works as well as a celebrated cycle of the complete Verdi operas, allowing audience members to hear some of the master’s less familiar works. But asked whether Traviata and the other Verdi operas are performed too frequently, he replied, “Never. All opera companies do the popular operas because people don’t get tired of seeing them.”

Audiences respond to the great music, the gripping plot and Verdi’s gift for making what may seem to be unsympathetic characters, such as a frivolous Parisian prostitute, people with whom we can identify. “The way Verdi through his music humanizes her and makes her somebody that audiences can feel something towards and maybe see some of themselves,” DeRenzi said.

In one of the opera’s great scenes, in which Alfredo’s straightlaced father asks Violetta to leave him, her character deepens and darkens before your eyes as she makes a terrible decision, and this stiff-necked man who spoils their love becomes a sympathetic father figure trying to do his best for his family.

“That’s a very strong thing about Traviata, that here is this man from a completely different background and a completely different set of ethics and morals, and Violetta,” DeRenzi said. “And yet they have something in common. What’s great about that duet is how they both change drastically within that short period of time.”

Florida Grand Opera’s production of La Traviata runs April 20-27 at the Arsht Center in Miami and May 2-5 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The opera will have two casts. Alejandres will sing the performances of April 20, 23 and 26, and May 2 and 5, along with Ivan Magri as Alfredo and Giorgio Caoduro as Germont. The second cast will feature Suzanne Vinnik, John Bellemer and Joo Won Kang in performances April 21, 24 and 27 and May 4.; 800-741-1010.

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Fri Apr 12, 2013
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