Verdi’s La Traviata at Lyric Opera, 2013-2014

Last night we saw Lyric Opera’s new (to Lyric) production of Verdi’s 1853 masterpiece, La Traviata, adapted from the novel and play, La dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. It’s one of the favorite operas in the common repertory and has been produced frequently over the years.

We loved the production, i.e. the sets, staging, and particularly the costuming, some of which you get a flavor of in the picture above. The picture is from the first act and they’re about to launch into the famous drinking song, Libiamo, one of the opera’s greatest hits.

We felt there was something missing in the performance and I can’t really put my finger on just what it was. The tempi were quite fast and nearly everything was performed a tempo, i.e. in strict time. For example, the rising note in the 38th bar of the Libiamo (and the same figure when repeated elsewhere) is typically performed with a portamento in the rising note which is held in a slight fermata. Not so in this performance: it was performed strictly in time. The effect of this, at least to me, was somewhat cold, even perfunctory.

The principals definitely had the chops to sing their parts beautifully but failed to thrill. No one took their octaves. The performances did improve as the opera progressed. Violetta’s third act aria, Addio del passato, for example, was quite lovely. All in all it was an adequate performance but I can’t honestly say I was delighted.

The Critics

John Von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

A striking beauty blessed with a bright, ravishing timbre and top notes like laser beams, Rebeka had what it took to nail her big aria (with its restored second verse) and florid cabaletta in Act I. The rest of her performance disappointed. The emotionally buffeted Violetta of Act 2 and the dying Violetta of Act 3 needed more oomph in the middle and bottom registers and a keener sense of dramatic involvement in the characterization. Neither Violetta’s noble act of self-sacrifice nor her farewell to earthly things, the aria “Addio del passato,” really tugged at the requisite heartstrings.

Not that the emotional punch of the Violetta-Germont confrontation in Act 2 was helped by Kelsey’s somewhat growly, if voluminous sound and the condescending smugness and lack of sympathy with which Alfredo’s father treated his son’s lover. Fortunately the Ryan Center alumnus was able to warm and soften his timbre for a winning “Di Provenza il mar,” in which dad tried to comfort his grieving son by awakening nostalgia for their home in Provence.

I found Mr. Kelsey’s performance cold and I thought he was lacking in stage presence, important for the older Germont.

Andrew Patner for the Sun-Times:

One would have thought that Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti’s scattershot and unconvincing approach to Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Civic Opera House two seasons ago would have been enough to persuade local leadership to look elsewhere for direction of such canonical works. But here we are again with constant and unnecessary racing, tweaking, arbitrary accents and ritards, none from the score and none adding anything to Verdi’s work. Balances with the singers were a bit better than in the orchestrally overpowering, uncoordinated “Lucia.” But after Muti’s “Macbeth,” “Otello” and frequent Requiems with the CSO here, why do we need to hear the second- or third-rate at a house of Lyric’s level and importance?

Casting, too, is problematic. Lyric has tapped the Baltics for a physically winning soprano, in this case Latvian Marina Rebeka. But after Violetta’s Act 1 half-hour mini-opera, the wan singer just does not have the voice for the next two highly demanding acts. She is even almost inaudible in the famed letter-reading introduction to the Act 3 signature, “Addio del passato,” normally a chance for acting chops to make up for any limitations as a singer.

Quinn Kelsey, the Hawaiian baritone and Ryan Center alumnus who is a local favorite — and a favorite of mine too — also fails to stake his claim on the elder Germont, the father of Violetta’s lover, who demands that the courtesan abandon his son thus sending the opera on its tragic way. While Kelsey becomes more well-rounded in the Act 2 “Di Provenza il mar,” he is generally hulking, skulking and one-dimensional in both his singing and in his acting.

Clealry, both Messrs. Von Rhein and Patner saw the same opera that we did.

As did Lawrence Johnson, writing for Chicago Classical Review:

Wednesday night it was the turn of Marina Rebeka, a relatively little known singer stateside, who was making her company debut. And while the Latvian soprano seemed to take a while to find her vocal footing opening night, with a boost by the terrific Joseph Calleja as Alfredo, the two principals sparked a vibrant and impassioned performance in what is Lyric’s most vocally successful show so far this season.

Rebeka is a gifted singer and makes an attractive presence onstage but she seemed ill at ease and nervous in the opening minutes Wednesday night with her words almost indecipherable in the Brindisi. Rebeka’s phrasing was choppy in Un di felice and she sang Ah fors’e lui with pure tone yet tip-toed dexterously through the final bursts of coloratura.

Whether a directorial decision or the singer’s own idea, singing Sempre libera as a tortuous confession rather than the joyous declaration of free living Verdi intended didn’t work dramatically at all. Though Rebeka began to show us what the advance notices are about, singing with creamy tone and impact, albeit eschewing the optional E flat.

The soprano seemed a different person after the first intermission, acting with greater subtlety and singing with consistent lovely gleaming tone and touching expression in Dite all giovine. From there she rose from strength to strength, affecting as the unjustly accused victim of Alfredo’s wrath, and bringing a tragic dignity to the final scene with a rendering of Addio del passato that was beautifully sung, pure-toned and heart-rending.

Several of the critics mentioned the elliptical set. I wonder if the designer realized that when the singers faced upstage at some angles they could be heard quite clearly but at others they were inaudible, depending on how the set reflected the sound?

Lyric really should be better than this. Once again we noticed a large number of empty seats in the orchestra section. For La Traviata?

5 comments… add one
  • Red Barchetta Link

    I love this particular piece. Are you suggesting we not scalp tickets for this version?

  • The production wasn’t awful. However, as my wife put it, “Why are we paying $200 a ticket for Violetta not to take her E flats?”

  • Red Barchetta Link

    Thanks. I know I post all this rock and roll stuff from YouTube. I acknowledge your indulgence. But rock and roll is just available on YouTube. And I’m just a glass half full guy. I wake up happy, I go to bed happy, and in between I just have music running through my head all day long, when I’m not thinking about my golf swing or a what the hell we are doing with a portfolio company.

    La Traviata? Oh, to die for. Tears. Now, Miles Davis………or Led Zeppelin.

    Few people know. Listen carefully to the more bombastic passages in Beethoven’s 9th, with the violin section just absolutely jamming right on the edge of control………….and then some of Jimmy Page’s searing solos. Genres so far apart as to defy description. But musically and emotionally simply indistinguishable.

    Thank god for opera, for rock and roll, and for music.

  • DavidL Link

    Dave Schuler – At least at the end of Act I, there is no E flat in the score. I find it hard to blame a singer or a house for performing as the composer rote.

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