Mark Gresham | 29 APR 2019
The Atlanta Opera opened the final production of its regualar season on Saturday evening, Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, one of the great essentials of Italian operatic repertoire. Three performances remain: Tuesday Apr 30 at 7:30 pm, Friday May 3 at 8:00 pm and Sunday May 5 at 3:00 pm.
With a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas, La traviata tells the story of Violetta Valéryes, a wealthy socialite and courtesan who gives up everything for the experience of true love with Alfredo Germont, a young nobleman. Because of Violetta’s reputation as a free-spirited courtesan, Alfredo’s father forces them apart to protect the family’s reputation, but the consequences prove disastrous.
Czech-born soprano Zuzana Marková, in her American debut, sings the role of Violetta. Tenor Mario Chang portrays Alfredo and Argentine baritone Fabian Veloz is cast as his father, Giorgio Germont – each in his company debut. Atlanta Opera music director Arthur Fagen conducts, with production direction by Francesca Zambello who made her Atlanta Opera debut in November 2018 directing West Side Story, and a fabulously effective, mechanically intriguing scenic design by Peter Davison, who likewise made his company debut in West Side Story.
With the three very able leads, the excellent cast of 11, plus chorus of 37 singers, eight dancers and 14 supernumeraries, and the creative crew behind them have made this La traviata a strong, engaging collective production.
Witness to that is in Act I when Alfredo is convinced to sing a light and graceful brindisi – a drinking song – in which Violetta and the chorus join in: “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici…” (“Let’s drink from happy glasses…”), one of the opera’s most memorable melodies.
Act I is also where Violetta has all of her vocal coloratura moments, and Marková makes the most of them, both solo and in duet with Chang. The two are at their best in musical interaction, a little less so in the dramatic arena. The real drama kicks in during Act II, as contentions and misunderstandings flare between Violetta, Alfredo and the elder Germont, with the music becoming more intense if less florid.
The contention between Violetta and Germont alone runs its course through several numbers, but Violetta’s “Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura” (“Tell the young woman, yes beautiful and pure”) is the fulcrum point of the drama, where she agrees to abandon Alfredo, unbeknownst to him, for the sake of his younger sister’s impending marriage. It proves to be the opera’s most intimate and emotionally powerful moment, even more than Violetta’s final reconciliation with Alfredo on her deathbed in the comparatively slow-paced Act III that ends the opera.
An interesting twist in this production is that the Prelude is staged. We see Violetta lying in a sanatarium bed, dying of tuberculosis, and the opera as a whole become a flashback from that scene.
Slow, pianissimo high strings initially underscore her illness and the hospital atmosphere. Then comes a melody which is featured much later the opera when Violetta knows she has to give up Alfredo. That in turn is followed by a kind of coquettish figure in the violins, offering up a superficial party atmosphere. When the Prelude ends, it’s almost like someone popped the cork on a champagne bottle as Violetta suddenly sheds her hospital gown to reveal a party dress as Act I begins in the salon of Violetta’s house where she is throwing a lavish party, with Fagen and the orchestra launching into the brilliant, vivacious music that underscores the act’s momentum.
The scenic change is nearly as quick as Violetta’s change of costume, which Davison achieves with the backdrops through the use of 15 rotating periaktoi – a set of columns that are shaped like equilateral triangular prisms. On the three faces of each periaktos, a slice of different scene is presented, so that, by quickly turning the periaktoi another backdrop is presented to the audience. They are rotated by hand, rather than with motors, but the key to their effectiveness is that they line up and mesh precisely when turned to a new position. while a periaktos is an old theatrical device, used extensively in the Renaissance, this kind of close-fitting as a seamless backdrop is a modern technical achievement. La traviata is the only one of Verdi’s operas to be set entirely indoors, so Davison’s use of periaktoi for the scenic changes was a brilliant idea that was highly effective.*
All in all, this La Traviata is a thoroughly engaging production from The Atlanta Opera and its handful of production collaborators – Washington National Opera, The Glimmrglass Festival, Seattle Opera and Indiana University – that’s definitely worth seeing.
*For some better insight, here’s a YouTube video about the construction and implementation of Davison’s scenic design: