La Traviata @ Dorothy Chandler Pavillion 5/21/09
Watching the LA Opera’s production of La Traviata on its opening night, it was easy to see why this is one of the most-performed pieces of music in the classical repertoire. Its themes are writ large: sex, death, decadence, betrayal, and all-conquering love, set to a rapturous score, one that consistently rewards the most heroic of singers. While it may seem like LA’s been getting too much of a good thing lately (it’s been part of three of the last four seasons at the Chandler), it really is the kind of thing you can watch again and again, especially when the production’s this good.
With Marina Poplavskaya cast as the free-spirited, terminally ill courtesan Violetta Valery, Massimo Giordano in the role of her long-suffering suitor Alfredo Germont and conductor Grant Gershon making his LA Opera debut, the company gave a new shine to director Marta Domingo’s well-worn production. The orchestra sounded simply wonderful in Gershon’s hands, polished and precise, ready to serve the moment no matter what was called for. It was Poplavskaya who stole the show though, with a dazzling vocal performance that defied gravity. Her Violetta was deeply moving, infusing every moment with emotional resonance, singing with a pure, unwavering velvet tone that could suddenly, suprisingly, leap into high-end acrobatics. She is absolutely a talent worth watching.
The other vocal standout was baritone Andrzej Dobber as Alfredo’s father, Count Germont, who tries to separate the lovers, pleading that the family will be ruined if his son is caught carrying on with a woman of ill repute. His duet with Poplavskaya, in which Violetta agrees to sacrifice her love for the family’s honor, was one of the evening’s most memorable. As the well-intentioned but ill-fated Alfredo, Giordano sounded occasionally strained in the first act, but warmed up considerably by the time of the climactic scene where he furiously throws a wad of cash at his departed lover and declares her “paid in full.”
But amidst all the chest-pounding drama, a big part of the fun here is found in the party scenes, and their lascivious odes to hedonism. Verdi wrote some rousing brindisis (Italian drinking songs) in his time - see also the “Beva con me” singalong from Otello - and La Traviata’s is surely among the greatest of them all, with its declaration that “All in life that does not bring pleasure is folly.” Though the orchestra and chorus made the Chandler swell with a sense of drunken abandon, the somewhat klutzy Gypsy dancers hired for Flora’s party were the only element that seemed under-rehearsed, although the dancing matador that followed raised the visual standards back up to a remarkable high.
Even if you think you’ve seen it all before - and honestly, you probably have seen the sets, which don’t appear to have changed since 2001 - Gershon and Poplavskaya’s first-rate interpretations make this particular La Traviata one not to skip.
La Traviata appears at Dorothy Chandler Pavillion through June 21. Tickets, $20-$250, available at the LA Opera web site, as well as show dates, times, and cast announcements.