La Triviata | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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Lyric Opera

at the Civic Opera House

September 26 and October 1, 5, 8, 12, 16, 21, 25, and 28

Let's face it: not only is La traviata the least musically interesting of all the standard Verdi operas, it is also probably the least dramatic. Moreover, it is a work where the link between music and drama, which Verdi interwove ingeniously in later works like Otello and Falstaff, is usually weak, often even nonexistent.

What's left? To quote my favorite line from a local program annotation, plenty of melodies that "one can take home in a doggy bag"; hence the work's enduring popularity.

If we grant that melody is what gives La traviata its principal charm and appeal (the harmony is usually about as ineresting as that in a German oompah-pah band), then the work will be only as effective as the leads who sing these memorable ditties. By that measure, the present Lyric production has little to recommend it.

It's not that this is a bad production; in fact, in some ways a "bad" La traviata might be more interesting--at least it would have a point of view. This production suffers more from exhaustion and a cynical lack of interest. The Lyric management/marketing perspective seems to be that if an opera is popular enough to pack the house, why waste big bucks on top talent? Save the expensive stars for the less popular operas. In some cases this logic may be acceptable, but it backfires with La traviata, where beautiful singing is literally everything.

The problems began almost immediately, in the prelude; Lyric conductor and artistic director Bruno Bartoletti set a very slow and stodgy pace for the usually upbeat, light first act. Bartoletti clearly does not take the view that La traviata should be approached as chamber music, that it's different from the heavier Verdi works; and that view weighed down the entire production considerably. The tempo did pick up during the first act's famous drinking song, but then it remained too fast for the love scene and chorus that follow. It was in general difficult to determine Bartoletti's rationale for tempi, except in spots where it was obvious that the singers couldn't keep up. The orchestra displayed some fine playing and excellent balancing, however, especially in the third act.

Probably the best--and the worst--thing that this production has going for it is soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Violetta. For some of the performance, her projection and power were excellent, and the louder she was able to sing, the better she seemed to sound. Softer and lighter passages, however, especially the coloratura sections of act one, were glossed over with a tight, wobbly vibrato that often went beyond a quarter-tone, making individual pitches all but indecipherable. High notes seemed to pop up out of chaos, and they had a noticeably squeaky quality. In general it seemed that Tomowa-Sintow's voice is simply too heavy for Violetta, and that a more controlled technique was warranted. Some moments of genuinely fine music making alternated with moments that were definitely less than fine.

Tenor Neil Rosenshein as Alfredo, the boy who falls in love with the more worldly Violetta, was on the one hand less offensive than Tomowa-Sintow, but on the other he was also less memorable. Little stood out here--he has a generic tenor sound, though slightly pinched with a nasal timbre and not projected particularly well. And although Rosenshein's vocal technique was fine for the most part, he and Tomowa-Sintow had trouble staying together in their duets. Both strained particularly in their initial duet in act one.

The role of Germont (Alfredo's father, who pleads with Violetta to let his son go so that the family name will not be tarnished) is not particularly interesting musically. Baritone Juan Pons was up to the part, though his acting was far more memorable than his singing. His act two monologue dragged and he seemed unable to produce a smooth baritone sound, but his act two duet with Tomowa-Sintow and his later duet with Rosenshein were tender and moving moments.

As for the sets, costumes, and staging--here again nothing stood out; mediocrity was the only common denominator. An otherwise impressive blue velvet set for act one ended abruptly halfway up to the ceiling and was marred by a tacky chandelier. The backdrop for act two featured some poorly painted trees that looked suspiciously like fugitives from La sonnambula (which is running concurrently with La traviata). The ballroom staircase of the second act was so fragile it moved every time someone walked down it, and protuberances made clear even at a distance exactly where the staircase was to be disassembled. The festivities that open the same scene were contrived and stodgy.

What is especially disappointing about all of this is the effect it has on first-time operagoers, some of whom I heard chatting behind me on opening night. Encouraged by some relatives to hear La traviata because it was so accessible and popular, they came away with all of their worst stereotypes about opera confirmed. It seemed unlikely that they would be back.

The question I kept asking myself was: why would Lyric give us yet another traditional La traviata, which has been heard here countless times and in far better incarnations, and yet stage a contemporary Tannhauser, which is rarely heard here even in its more traditional guise? La traviata, especially this one, would have been a far better guinea pig.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.

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