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Let’s get the racing results out of the way right off: Those who regard La Traviata as the ultimate test of soprano-worthiness should know that Hei-Kyung Hong’s performance as Violetta Valéry in the Washington National Opera’s current production is…very, very good. True, she may not warrant the winner’s-circle adulation that, say, Maria Callas or Rosa Ponselle inspired in their days as the leading lady. But with her graceful stage presence, shimmering voice, and better-than-average acting ability, Hong provides just the right kind of talent package for succeeding in this nightmare-to-cast opera—no matter how many little bumps she might hit in the straightaway.
A few Italianized character names aside, Traviata is a faithful adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias, which was a best-selling novel and a sellout hit as a stage play in Europe during the years leading up to the opera’s 1853 premiere. To this day, the lovely courtesan coughing her tubercular way into an oh-so-romantic death in the arms of her lover has remained alive in the lexicon of tragic love-story finales. But the entire plot—involving Violetta’s trading her free-loving lifestyle for a romance with the young Alfredo, only to have his father destroy their love in a ham-fisted attempt at preserving family propriety—fired Verdi’s imagination. From the free-spirited coloratura in Act 1 to the disembodied beauty of the Act 3 death scene, every bar of the score attests to Verdi’s affection, compassion, and respect for his wronged heroine.
In sheer musical terms, Hong is a formidable Violetta, boasting the range and the chops to handle the opera’s uncommonly demanding writing. A gutsier lower register might give her a more characteristic Verdi sound, perhaps, but it’s tough to find fault with her butter-cream timbre, her neatly turned coloratura, or her ability to sculpt and inflect the vocal line in response to the needs of the drama.
If only she could put aside the patrician manner that has served her so well in a host of Mozart leads. However ladylike Violetta might appear, we should never forget that she makes her living through flattery, deception, and a fierce survival instinct—which are as much a part of her character as all that language-of-the-fan business. With the exception of an unusually passionate smooch with Alfredo in Act 1, Hong’s Violetta projects more of the air-kissing friendliness of a seasoned Washington socialite than of the practiced carnality that makes the character both personally irresistible and socially dangerous.
Hong isn’t aloof to her character’s illness: She really nails the tuberculosis, which manifests itself in Acts 1 and 3 with an unexaggerated, clinically believable immediacy. But when confronted with hard, emotional truths, this Violetta seems most comfortable separating herself from the other characters and suffering in isolation, her expression shifting between masks of bewilderment, victimization, and stoic endurance. Hong is a solid enough actress to prevent this from descending into mugging, but what at first seems like an odd bit of directing before long begins to look like a lived-in habit of the performer.
Director Marta Domingo, who has regularly garnered reviews so damning they practically accuse her of war crimes, could arguably have done more to engage her singers—especially in the pivotal Act 2 scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father, Giorgio (the handsome-voiced Jorge Lagunes), which plays like a two-dimensional battle of wills. But the fact is, this time around, Domingo gets a lot more right than she does wrong, staging the opera with grace, clarity, and common sense. There are plenty of received ideas here, to be sure, but Domingo also draws committed acting from tenor John Matz, whose sure technique and sweet, ringing tone are mightily impressive in the role of Alfredo, and finds some small, lovely moments for Keri Alkema’s perky Flora, Valeriano Lanchas’ weighty Dr. Grenvil, and William Parcher’s elegantly nasty Baron Douphol. Her staging is well-served by designer Giovanni Agostinucci’s elegant costumes and the economy-sized Zeffirellisms of his sets—which begin to look cheesy only in Act 2, Scene 2, where it becomes clear that the WNO’s budget doesn’t exactly rival the Met’s.
Where the production truly breaks fresh ground, however, is in its use of Verdi’s original and almost-never-heard 1853 score. Repeatedly, the ear is caught by a significant chunk of unfamiliar music, almost invariably higher-lying and more ornamented than Verdi’s revision. Some of the first-draft writing for Violetta is quite gripping, and the big Act 2, Scene 2, ensemble uncannily recalls the famous sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Actually, most of this earlier version looks backward, to the bel canto era, rather than forward, to Verdi’s more streamlined, late-career masterpieces. But if the 1853 score tends to sound a little lightweight, a little patched-together, it’s just as likely due to its usurping of music that has become a sacred operatic text than any lack of inspiration on the composer’s part.
The early score could hardly receive better advocacy than that given by conductor Giovanni Reggioli. Here’s a man with the Italian idiom clearly in his blood: He knows when to change the tempo with a juicy rubato as much as he knows when to keep things bustling along. Most arresting of all is Reggioli’s treatment of the Act 1 and Act 3 preludes. Daringly slow, febrile, and scrupulously shaped, they showcase the WNO strings at their very finest.
It’ll be fascinating to see—and hear—what Reggioli will do with a new cast of principals in the May 29 and June 1 performances. If her turns as other Romantic heroines are anything to go by, Andrea Rost should prove a less flawlessly sung but more passionate Violetta than Hong. Of course, there’s no soprano—no, not even Callas or Ponselle—who possesses all the attributes required to make a perfect Violetta. If there were, there wouldn’t be much point in betting on this war horse in the first place.
One can only wonder what the operatic railbirds are troubling themselves over with André Previn’s 1998 magnum opus, A Streetcar Named Desire. But given the current WNO production, the heated chitchat likely concerns Brad Dalton’s bold stage direction, which does a masterful job of disorienting both Blanche DuBois and the audience by reconfiguring the few sticks of weathered furniture. Now we’re watching the action from the kitchen—now, it seems, from the bedroom. And all of it happens on Michael Yeargan’s attention-grabbing set, a sort of off-axis time tunnel the color of blood and charred skin and lined with ominous rows of doors.
Without divisions between interior and exterior spaces, the thorough lack of privacy in the Kowalski household is made especially palpable—particularly when grimy, half-naked studs flood the stage from all those doors to give Blanche a good leer. Indeed, there’s plenty of good to say about Dalton’s stagecraft. What might inspire discussion of a less generous sort—at least among those die-hard Traviata-lovers—is Previn’s significant, if not always alluring, modern score. His writing for orchestra is assured and imaginative, its roiling, pungently colored outbursts providing a psychological road map for the tortured interactions of librettist Philip Littell’s Tennessee Williams–
faithful characters. But one could argue that a seasoned jazz guy like Previn should know better than to connote steamy sexuality with the most clichéd of slithering saxophones.
Then there’s the matter of melody. Previn here follows the trend of so many 20th-century American composers in paying glancing respects to melody as a concept without really trusting its seductive power. Thus, most of the dialogue is declaimed angularly, and when opportunities come for traditional arias, the lines of text are outfitted with tunes contrived to fight both the cadences of spoken American English and the natural arcs that melodies tend to take. Again: Leaving aside the serialists, the minimalists, and Stephen Sondheim (arguably our greatest opera composer, though he might sidle away from the moniker), this has become the accepted style of mainstream American opera-writing. Not a problem in theory. But too often, Previn’s vocal writing, no matter how carefully crafted on the page, simply sounds generic, adding little to Williams’ classic lines and producing a Streetcar-length sameness of sound.
There’s a telling moment in the closing minutes of Act 1 during which Stella hums a bluesy, insinuating little tune that refuses to leave your head during intermission. Over practically before it begins—and occupying but the minutest fraction of this nearly three-hour opus—this fragment of precious melody tells us all we need to know about the opera the Broadway- and Hollywood-steeped Previn could have written.
Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye’s vibrantly sung Stella proves the heart of the WNO’s production, by turns sweetly ingenuous, carnal, lost, and driven by repressed anger and longing. Teddy Tahu Rhodes is a gauntly handsome bully of a Stanley Kowalski, always ready with a snide good-ol’-boy smile and singing in a powerhouse bass-baritone. And as the lone holdover from the original San Francisco Opera production, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey gives an incisively sung, cannily judged mama’s-boy performance as Mitch, who becomes an increasingly dominant presence in the second half of the production.
Not as dominant as Susannah Glanville’s Blanche—but then, that’s the way it should be. Previn makes Blanche the center of attention, giving her the lion’s share of music, including a trio of dark-night-of-the-soul arias that demand a clarion set of pipes and the gifts of a natural-born actress. Tall and broad-shouldered and possessing a thrustful soprano of tireless, nearly Wagnerian amplitude, Glanville is iconic in the role, finding ways to make Blanche’s girly-girl flirtatiousness as unnerving as her growing psychosis. Dalton punches up her performance by framing her in a box of light at the tops and tails of acts—to make sure we remember just whose story is being told.
It’s a shame, though, that Previn conducted only the first two performances. However you might feel about his score, the experience of hearing an opera’s creator bring it to life in the pit—quite thrillingly in this case, I might add—carries a very special charge. Opera fanatics a century from now may well be arguing the relative merits of one diva’s Blanche over another’s, but who’ll still be around to say he heard the composer himself tell her story? CP