What can one say about any production of La traviata? It’s among the most famous and overperformed operas in the canon. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard it, at least “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” the bouncy waltz from Act I. It’s a standard for all opera singers, and a showcase role for sopranos. It’s a safe bet for opera companies, a reliable seat-filler, and entry level opera for newbies, which is why it’s often a season opener, as it is for the Washington National Opera this year. It takes a lot to make a traviata memorable, and Francesca Zambello’s new production for WNO does not.
To her credit, it’s a fine interpretation of Verdi’s silly, tragic earworm. One way to make a traviata stand out is to take a big risk and make it awful; Zambello certainly doesn’t do that. Her vision has a couple minor tweaks—an early 20th century setting for a story originally set in mid-19th century Paris; an opening that places the title character, Violetta, on her deathbed narrating her life. Neither are particularly novel, but they contribute to a cinematic feel to the opera. La traviata may have inspired the film Love Story, but as mawkish love stories go, this production echoes the epic conceit of The English Patient.
Indeed, props go to lighting designer Mark McCullough for anchoring this production’s best innovation, the use of light to turn Verdi’s opera at different times into a movie or painting on stage. There are freeze frames, slow motion, and fade ins and outs from scene to scene. Singers cloaked in darkness and illuminated from below give the illusion of a Dutch master portrait. It’s a simple but effective trick that suffuses the story with heightened tension and dread.
It’s too bad it’s an extremely stupid story, but that can’t be helped. It’s a doomed romance across class lines in which the heroine is further doomed by Mysterious Opera Disease. Verdi wasn’t the only opera composer to write about disease, or even tuberculosis—Puccini’s Mimi in La bohème is another famous opera consumptive—but he was the most fixated on it, writing nine operas that involved physicians. It also betrays the composer’s fixation on the sexual mores of his time: Traviata means “fallen woman,” more specifically mistress or high end prostitute, though it vaguely references a broad range of behavior Victorian society deemed sinful. That may have included the unmarried relationship of Verdi and his partner, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi.
Strepponi’s stand-in is tubercular courtesan Violetta, who falls in love with rich kid Alfredo whose overbearing father—stop me if you’ve heard this one—disapproves of their relationship. There’s also a love triangle and, wouldn’t you know it, things don’t end well for anyone. As Violetta in WNO’s A cast (Jacqueline Echols has the role on Oct. 14 and 20), Venera Gimadieva takes on a famously challenging role that shifts from drunken exhilaration to lovesick passion to just plain sick debilitation with a pleasingly flute-like, though at times yelping, soprano. Tenor Joshua Guerrero comes off a little weak as Alfredo, while brassy baritone Lucas Meachem demonstrates good vocal range as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio. It’s a company debut for all three, and all do a competent if not spectacular job, occasionally straining with pitch and timing.
The latter hiccup can be attributed more to conductor Renato Palumbo, who does take an innovative approach to the opera, an innovation that can be called conducting it too fast. Most of the time Palumbo speeds through Verdi’s score, leaving little room for error among the singers. At other times, the orchestra is languid and reserved; Palumbo seems to equate dramatic tempo changes with drama. It’s disjointed and not the most effective approach. But at the very least, it’s a unique take on a famous score opera fans have heard many times before. It may not be what keeps them coming back, but with La traviata, it doesn’t matter. There will always be another.
To Oct. 21 at 2700 F St. NW. $25–$300. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.