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La Traviata: Opera's Opera

Ed Rampell: The acting and singing shine but it is Verdi and the score that are this immortal opera’s real stars.
la traviata

Nino Machaidze as Violetta and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Alfredo. (Photos: Craig Mathew)

Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 La Traviata is arguably the quintessential opera. As such it has every element that’s essential to the operatic expression and medium, including melodramatic plot points that provide the excuse for grandiloquent acting, emoting and singing that hits the high and low notes; superb sets and costumes; and above all, a stellar soaring sonic score that often breaks the sound barrier.

The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, and should be familiar to all Greta Garbo fans, as this is the same source material for George Cukor’s 1936 classic Camille, wherein the so-called “Swedish Sphinx” (NOTE: SPOILER ALERT) actually became more radiantly beautiful as she got sicker and died.

Translated from the Italian (the language this opera is performed in) La Traviata means “the strayed one,” which refers to the protagonist, Violetta Valery (soprano Nino Machaidze from Tblisi, a beauty well-suited for the role who proves, as the Beatles sang, that while “Ukraine girls really knock me out… Georgia’s always on my m-m-mind!”). Violetta is a renowned former courtesan who finds not only true lust but true love with Alfredo Germont (young Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz). (NOTE: SPOILER ALERT!) Unfortunately, Violetta has a fatal illness -- consumption.

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Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont and Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Alfredo.

In any case, opera often has a note of social criticism which, in La Traviata, comes in the form of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Plácido Domingo), who vigorously disapproves of his son’s relationship with a (former) prostitute, and schemes and scams to literally get between them. As such, Giorgio is opera’s über-cock block, although when he grasps the depths of Violetta’s love for his son, not-so-dear-old-dad learns the errors of his ways -- although a tad too late. (In any case, it’s interesting to note that Domingo’s first starring role was as Alfredo, a tenor, and now, about half a century later, the 73-year-old Spaniard is playing the father of that character as a baritone.)

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Readers know that this critic often takes productions to task when they update and alter classics in a way that distracts from the creator’s original work and intent. However, your humble scribe is pleased to report that director/production designer Marta Domingo’s imaginative re-setting of La Traviata from the 19th century (or 1700, when Verdi’s opera is also sometimes set) works quite well. Ms. Domingo has placed the story during the Roaring Twenties, presumably in America, giving the show a Great Gatsby ambiance. The costumes and sets have an Art Deco panache (several female audience members actually dressed as flappers, adding to the Jazz Age atmospherics). In one kinetic number a half dozen hoofers of Roma (formerly known as “Gypsy”) background actually look like Erte statues come to life, as they sensuously tear up the dance floor.

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Peabody Southwell as Flora.

The acting and singing shine but it is Verdi and the score that are this immortal opera’s real stars. The music ranges from moving love duets to moody leitmotifs, as high strings ominously allude to Violetta’s impending dire fate. The famous “Toast, Let's Drink From the Joyful Chalices” (hear it at: http://www.laopera.org/season/1415-Season-at-a-Glance/La-Traviata/) is as ebullient an evocation of joie de vivre as almost any piece of music in any genre, such as Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, although admittedly Piave’s lyrics aren’t as high-minded as Beethoven’s rousing appeal to universal brotherhood. Rather, in Verdi’s opera, the words and sound celebrate pleasure, playfulness and joyfulness, as Alfredo merrily croons:

“Let’s drink, drink from the joyful chalices
since the beautiness is blossoming.
And might the fleeting hour get inebriated at will
Let’s drink among (those) sweet quivers
that Love makes arise,
since that eye goes to (his) almighty heart.
Let's drink, (my) love, (so that) love among the chalices
will get hotter kisses.”

As Violetta and the chorus join in, one doesn’t need supertitles on high in order to get the meaning of this homage to the pursuit of happiness. James Conlon’s conducting is inspired; rarely has this reviewer seen the maestro more enraptured during a performance, his baton whirling like a magic wand, conjuring up Verdi’s effervescent vision of love and passion for all to see and hear. This production of La Traviata, which repeatedly elicited standing ovations and cries of “bravo!” from the enthralled aud, is a smashing start for LA Opera’s new season. Bravissimo indeed!

La Traviata is being performed Tuesday Sept. 23 and Friday Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday Sept. 28 at 2:00 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell