Seattle Opera’s ‘La Traviata’: Stripped-down tragedy

Shorn of lavish accoutrements and other inessentials, revelatory 21st century production gains force and focus

By ANGELA ALLEN

There is nowhere to hide in this Traviata. Running only an hour and 50 minutes, German director Peter Konwitschny’s spare version, playing through January 28 at Seattle Opera, focuses keenly and persistently on its characters, on Giuseppe Verdi’s lush and ever-building music, and on the extreme emotions surrounding dying Violetta. She has struggled, against all odds, to change her “fallen” life, where she is kept as a courtesan in snarky Parisian society, to one of true love with the naïve and pure-hearted Alfredo.

Verdi created a tragic heroine out of a whore, and in 1853, when the opera was first performed in Italy, that was a revolutionary artistic move. The company has staged eight productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s popular perennial since 1967. This one is worth fitting into your repertoire.

Corinne Winters as Violetta in Seattle Opera’s 2017 ‘La Traviata’ at McCaw Hall. Photo: Philip Newton.

Konwitschny’s version has no intermission and almost no scenery or props other than Alfredo’s pile of books and layers of red curtains, where characters pass in and out of scenes, and finally out of life. The blood-red curtains and Violetta’s red dress whisper and sometimes scream tragedy, drama, fallen woman, la traviata! But if the characters try to hide behind the curtains, and the chorus representing Parisian society behind its hypocrisy, they can’t.

Without the distractions of lavish costumes and scenery seen in most major productions, it’s easier to feel the piece as timeless, place-less and yes, in the moment. We’re right there with Violetta. From the opening party where she is hypocritically “welcomed” back after a bout with illness to Parisian high society, through her love affair with the bookish Alfredo and her sacrifice of her true love thanks to the persuasive Germont to her final fade away, we’re there. The simple contemporary costumes ground us. (Alfredo even has patches on the elbows of his baggy jacket.)

From beginning to end, the opera is all Violetta’s, sung on opening night by Corinne Winters and performed on alternate dates by Angel Blue. The SO no longer features “gold” and “silver” casts; performances alternate with two gold casts, new general director Aidan Lang says.

Winters sang Violetta in the original Konwitschny production at the English National Opera in 2013, and her familiarity with the role allowed her to perform it with full-blown confidence. With so many arias and duets – many when Violetta is taken down by her worsening consumption and sings on the floor or in other compromised positions – her secure strong soprano resonates. She does everything right in the role.

Winters embraced Violetta so thoroughly that we don’t pity her. We are sad that she has to die, that she loses her true love, but she goes out with dignity, backing away triumphantly into those red curtains.

Joshua Dennis sang Alfredo, dressed up in bad glasses and baggy clothes, and despite his golden tenor, he is made to look too dorky, which detracts from his dignity. That fact and the extremely long and elaborate curtain call were my few objections to the performance. I wasn’t wild about the role of the Germonts’ mute small daughter accompanying him onstage to reinforce how important her future is, but for some opera-goers, perhaps her presence amped up the poignancy of Violetta’s decision. For me, it added a detail that veered in a sentimental direction from this sharply unsentimental production.

Winters and stage director Konwitschny are only two of those making their SO debuts with this production. Among the debutante big shots: music conductor Stefano Ranzani; tenors Dennis and Zach Borichevsky as Alfredo; British lighting designer Martin Doone, Austrian revival director Mika Blauensteiner, and German production designer Johannes Leiacker; and Stephen Powell, one of the Germont baritones.

Joshua Dennis as Alfredo, Corinne Winters as Violetta and cast members of Seattle Opera’s 2017 ‘La Traviata.’ Photo: Philip Newton.

The high point of the opera, thematically and musically, is when Germont (sung convincingly by baritone Weston Hurt, who did the role in SO’s 2009 Traviata) talks Violetta into giving up his son Alfredo for the future of his daughter’s marriage and family’s reputation. She’s a kept woman who stumbled off the path of convention, he tells her. She has no future when her beauty and youth fade.

Violetta is eventually convinced during their rambling and heart-breaking duet to leave Alfredo for convention’s sake. As the duet progresses, the process of humanizing stereotypes occurs. Germont begins to see Violetta as a person rather than prostitute, and ultimately, as a kind of daughter. She in turn starts to respect him as a father figure rather than hate him as nasty intruder. It is my favorite tragic moment of the opera: She is not only dying at a young age, she is losing her hold on hope, and yet she is singing magnificently throughout the inevitable sacrifice. As she becomes more saintly, she also becomes more human.

This production bodes well as the beginning of the first fully curated season under Lang’s direction. I look forward to more of his work.

Seattle Opera’s La Traviata continues through January 28. See seattleopera.org for more information.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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