Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Virginia Opera production conducted by Peter Mark. Presented October 14 and 16, 2005, at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Fairfax, Virginia.
Even after 152 years, La Traviata remains a gem of an opera, and Virginia Opera gives it a jewel box of a production. This is a troupe that really makes the most of a stage. In just one of many felicitous touches, Production Director Dorothy Danner gives us brilliant colors for Violetta’s party in Act I but switches to darker, red-dominated ones for Flora’s party in Act II – making it look as if that gathering takes place in a brothel, and indicating Violetta’s descent since leaving Alfredo. Yet Violetta’s Act II, Scene 2 dress, though using the same predominantly red tones as the other costumes, is still lighter-hued: she is in this society but at the same time not quite of it.
Why not? This production shows why, taking part of the story of the real Alphonsine Plessis, on whom Violetta is based, and turning it into a mimed show seen through a screen during the opera’s overture. We see a very young girl sold by her father to be used by whatever man will have her, until she luckily connects with men who give her greater and greater finery – and then shows up dressed in white in front of the curtain. This is a remarkably effective way to begin an oft-told tale.
The telling itself requires a Violetta of surpassing artistry, and Virginia Opera has one in Cristina Nassif. Although she sounded slightly strained at the opening of Act I, as if she had trouble projecting her voice over the orchestra, she soon warmed up and sang splendidly for the balance of the act and the rest of the performance. An island of stability in the ceaseless activity of her party – more fine stage direction there – she played Violetta as someone ready to leave her life as a demimondaine even before Alfredo’s appearance. She is clearly making the best of this life while being eager to find a way out – a state of affairs that gives her Sempre libera more depth than this aria has in more typically flighty renditions. Nassif gives dignity to her scene with the odious Giorgio Germont in Act II, and in the second scene of the act shows real poignancy as she affirms her love for Alfredo even as she tells him he will never understand – and refuses to return to him. The final act, in which she sings flawlessly while lying down, bent over and kneeling, is more moving than this overlong bit of melodrama tends to be nowadays. Indeed, Nassif is as much actress as singer in this performance: her Violetta seems truly to live as well as to sing.
The same cannot be said of Daniel Snyder’s Alfredo. Snyder’s voice seems forced much of the time, he seems to have some difficulty with Italian pronunciation, and his acting is on the wooden side – more noticeably so because Nassif’s is so supple. Snyder sounds as if he is going through the motions of love, not really feeling its emotions. He is simply not convincing – until the final act. Here Snyder seems to find some core of belief in the story, and his tenderness toward and solicitude for Violetta seem genuine, as does his grief when he realizes she cannot survive. He finally acts and sounds worthy of her – adding to the unusual effectiveness of this act.
Grant Youngblood sings the thankless and rather repellent role of Giorgio Germont very well indeed. It is impossible not to see Verdi’s personal situation at the time he composed this opera in the interference of this priggish character with Alfredo’s and Violetta’s love: In 1853, Verdi’s wife had died and he was living with Giuseppina Strepponi, who had created the role of Abigaille in Nabucco. Verdi did not marry her until 1859 – and Verdi’s father-in-law’s attacks on the couple’s living arrangement brought forth a reaction from Verdi similar to the one Violetta initially has to the elder Germont. Given the fact that this thoroughly unsympathetic character cannot be dismissed as merely a sop to Victorian morality, Youngblood wisely uses his powerful baritone to turn Germont into a misguided authority figure who preys on Violetta’s extraordinary inner goodness and realizes only at the very end how he has misused his power. It is an effective interpretation that is very well sung – though even Youngblood cannot get around the way Di Provenza brings the action to a screeching halt.
Peter Mark knows this music inside out and could practically conduct it in his sleep – but his careful tempo choices and fine ear for orchestral balance make the score ever-new. One felicitous touch among many was the unusual prominence of the clarinet line in Act I as Violetta repeats Alfredo’s words of love. The members of the Virginia Symphony played throughout with empathy and feeling. Indeed, empathy and feeling were the hallmarks of this entire production – another success for an opera company that gets better every year.
October 16, 2005
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