Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

La Traviata
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Gun Show, Roald Dahl's Matilda The Musical, The Brothers Paranormal, and Shul


Nicole Cabell and Cast
Photo by Dan Norman
Giuseppe Verdi is generally hailed as one of the grand masters of 19th century Italian opera, and his highly productive period between 1842 and 1853 resulted in three of the most acclaimed works, not only by Verdi, but in the entire canon of opera: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and, in 1853, La Traviata. Of those, La Traviata has become especially popular, the most frequently performed of any opera, with 151 known productions in the 2018-2019 season. Any company staging La Traviata knows they are dealing with a beloved masterpiece, and tampers with its elements at their peril.

Minnesota Opera has done no such tampering in their current mounting, giving full force to the lush, romantic score, with mesmerizing performances by its lead singers. The Minnesota Opera Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Franklin on opening night (chorus master Andrew Whitfield conducts at several performances), play the rhapsodic score with clear tones that emphasize the strong interplay between melody and text. If there are fewer themes in La Traviata that are recognized independent of the score, the integration between the music and narrative thrust in this opera is all the stronger for it.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave based La Traviata on the French play La dame aux camélias, adapted by Alexandre Dumas from his own novel. The same novel is the source of several film versions called Camille, the best-known directed by George Cukor, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. The play premiered in 1852 in Paris where Verdi saw it, and he must have been greatly inspired by the subject to have his opera open just a year later in Venice—that, and the pressure to deliver on a contract to produce a new opera for the Venetian opera after his success with Rigoletto. The initial 1853 production of La Traviata suffered from poor casting choices and drew mixed notices, but a remount in 1854 drew praises which have met the opera ever since.

La Traviata translates as "the fallen woman," or in today's parlance, "the prostitute." Violetta Valéry lives as a "courtesan," supported by wealthy men in exchange for her favors, with Baron Douphol being her current benefactor. Having been afflicted with consumption, she throws a party to celebrate a bout of improved health. Here she meets Alfred Germont, an ardent admirer, who had watched over her from afar during her illness. He declares his love in the beautiful "Un di, felice, eterea" (One day, happy and ethereal), but Violetta has long since given up the notion of true love, settling on enjoying the freedom to pursue what pleasures life can offer. Yet Alfred's love touches her in ways she has never known, certainly with more tenderness and passion than her Baron.

After Alfred leaves, her conflicted feelings are passionately expressed in intertwined arias, "Ah, fors' è lui" ("Ah, perhaps he is the one") and "Sempre libera" ("Always free"), while Alfred is heard singing from offstage, underscoring the purity and wholeness of his love for her. The scene is both musically and dramatically enthralling.

Three months later, Violetta has chosen love and is living outside Paris with Alfredo. Her bliss is disrupted when Alfred's father Giorgio arrives and beseeches Violetta to break off her relationship with Alfredo for the sake of his sister, whose engagement is jeopardized by knowledge that her brother lives openly with a "fallen woman." Violetta, at first aghast, is won over by Giorgio. For the sake of Alfredo and his sister, she leaves him. Alfredo is heartbroken, believing she has left him to return to the Baron. Violetta's health declines further and only when she is on the verge of death does Alfredo learn the truth, rushing to her side, followed by Giorgio, who begs forgiveness for his part in separating the two lovers. The opera ends in one of the most impassioned death scenes to ever grace a stage.

La Traviata has only three roles that must carry the lion's share of the narrative—Violetta, Alfredo, and Giorgio—and Minnesota Opera has double-cast all three roles. On opening night, Nicole Cabell played Violetta, realizing the role beautifully in her lush soprano, her exquisite acting, and the grace of her movement, seesawing between the strength of her passions and the fragility of her ailing body. Jesús León has a glorious tenor, brilliant singing the role of Alfredo, expressing his earnest love for Violetta, heedless of her tarnished past, with complete conviction. His anguish and humiliation after her return to Paris is palpable. As Giorgio, Joo Won Kang's strong baritone expresses the gravity of his fatherly role, compelled to do what he believes best for his children even as he sees the pain it inflicts.

In smaller roles, Nicholas Davis does justice as the Baron, asserting his dominance over Violetta with a growling bass, while Bergen Baker is highly spirited as Violetta's pleasure-loving friend Flora. The entire cast and chorus sing beautifully, doing honor to the glories of Verdi's score.

Stage director Louisa Muller keeps the movement of the narrative flowing, with crowds of reveling partygoers appearing and retreating in what feels like a finger-snap, while placing the principals in positions that underscore their relationship to one another. When, in act one, Violetta and Alfredo are alone having their first moments together, we can spy couples dancing through open doors, reinforcing the atmosphere of pursuing pleasures in which this couple try to stake out something more meaningful. Wonderfully done! As for those dances, the large ensemble dances are choreographed by Heidi Spesard-Noble with wit and energy that conveys the spirit of a crowd dedicated to enjoying themselves.

The only disappointment with this production is in the setting. Each of the four sets use the same floor to rafter walls, painted to appear decayed, like the debauchery of people they enclose, but with no differentiation between among the settings, nothing to distinguish the simplicity of Violetta and Alfredo's life in the country from the opulence of the high-rolling city dwellers, nor from the chamber where Violetta will breathe her last.

The costumes, however, are gorgeous (both sets and costume designs are the work of Isabella Bywater), with outrageously rendered gypsy and matador costumes worn by the attendees at Flora's lavish party. Marcus Doshi's lighting creates evocative moods on stage, with a breathtaking effect of morning light pouring through an open window in the final scene.

If you among the legions who love La Traviata, this beautiful production by Minnesota Opera will no doubt be a cause to celebrate. If you are unfamiliar with the work, it offers a grand opportunity to hear the brilliant score played and sung beautifully, so that you can understand why it is held up as one of the greatest works in the canon, and why its story has often been used as a signifier for both the agony and ecstasy that true love bestows upon us.

La Traviata, through May 19, 2019, at Minnesota Opera, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $138.0. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.

Music: Giuseppe Verdi; Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave; Conductors* : Christopher Franklin and Andrew Whitfield; Stage Director: Louisa Muller; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Scenic and Costume Design: Isabella Bywater; Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi; Hair and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Intimacy Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Chorusmaster: Andrew Whitfield; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Répétiteurs: Mary Box and Andrew Sun; Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller.

Cast: Youngjoo An* (Giorgio Germont), Bergen Baker (Flora Bervoix), Danielle Beckvermit (Annina), Nicole Cabell* (Violetta Valéry), Nicholas Davis (Baron Douphol), Joo Won Kang* (Giorgio Germont), Jesús León* (Alfredo Germont), Cecilia Violetta López* (Violetta Valéry), Stephen Martin* (Alfredo Germont), Joel Mathias (Flora's Servant), Darrius Morton (Giuseppe), Tony Potts (Messenger), Christian Sanders (Gastone de Letorières), William Clay Thompson (Dr. Grenvil), Christian Thurston (Marquis D'Obigny). * Alternating performances


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