This posting must be prefaced by confessing that if someone held a gun to my head and demanded to know what my favorite opera was, after much waffling back and forth, I would probably have to confess that it would be Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA. It was music from this opera that first captivated me as a child of six and was the first recording I ever owned (with Albanese, Peerce and Merrill, conducted by Toscanini.)
That having been said, tonight’s performance of Verdi’s 1853 masterpiece puzzled me. There was so much about it that was wonderful, not the least of which were the stunning vocal performances and committed acting of soprano Brenda Rae and Michael Fabiano as “Violetta” and “Alfredo.”
I think I had trouble with the director’s decision to exaggerate “Violetta’s” coarseness in the first act. It made it difficult for me to sympathize with her in the rest of the opera. The life of a nineteenth century courtesan wasn’t above reproach, but she shouldn’t be depicted as a common prostitute either.
There is a wonderful book that came out a few months ago called THE GIRL WHO LIKED CAMELLIAS by Julie Kavanagh that I highly recommend. It is the exhaustively researched and extremely well written story of Alphonsine Plessis, later known as Marie Duplessis, the courtesan with whom Alexander Dumas the younger fell in love and about whom he wrote the novel and later the play THE LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS, the basis for LA TRAVIATA. This book shows that these kept women, the mistresses of wealthy and powerful men, were far more than mere sexual objects, but often cultured, cultivated and intellectually stimulating women, merely living outside the bourgeois social conventions of the time.
By reducing “Violetta” to a crude, brassy hooker in the first scene makes the nobility of her sacrifice in the second act utter nonsense and unmotivated.
As I said, the cast threw themselves into this concept with total conviction, and once passed the first scene, things seemed to settle down for the most part.
I loved the way the big ensemble in the Flora scene was staged (although again I quibble with turning Flora’s apartment into a bordello) and there were beautifully staged and acted moments throughout.
I realize that I am too close to the material to be objective, of course, and many people with whom I spoke at the intermission seemed to love it.
There is a powerful theatrical touch at the end of the opera that had real impact, and that was in the final moment when “Violetta” suddenly feels a surge of life. At that moment, all the other characters in her bedroom fade away and the audience is left wondering if “Violetta” simply imagined “Alfredo’s” return, and that she really dies alone and abandoned.
Brenda Rae is a real discovery in the title role, with a beautiful, creamy voice and the remarkable ability to float the most ethereal soft notes that somehow fill the theatre.
Michael Fabiano is another in a seemingly endless line of wonderful young tenors coming out of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, including James Valenti, Stephen Costello and Bryan Hymel (all of whom have sung with the Dallas Opera.) As different as each of them is from one another, the common thread here seems to be that they all studied with the same teacher, a man named Bill Schuman, who is also the teacher of Latonia Moore, Ailyn Perez and Angela Meade (among many others.) I am not quite sure what his secret is, but his track record is truly exceptional and as far as I can tell, unprecedented in the annals of vocal pedagogy.
This performance completes my run of five productions at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, but I still have the second evening of scenes on Sunday night’s Apprentice Concert, which I look forward to hearing.