Opera Review: Breathless Love?

At Seattle Opera, a courtesan declares her independence. Maybe.

One way to look at the history of opera is as an ongoing battle between vocal display for its own sake and dramatic plausibility. The mid-1700s, roughly, marked the peak of hyperrefined singing technique (among the castrati, the ultimate examples of operatic artificiality) and rigidly conventionalized musical forms and dramatic situations. Since then, opera composers have become gradually more interested in true-to-life characters and emotional realism and less in providing singers with opportunities to show off.If you envision these two priorities plotted on a graph over time, one line rising, one falling, the aria "Sempre libera," which closes Act 1 of Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 La traviata, might mark the point where they meet. Those normally conflicting operatic ideals never more congenially in sync, Verdi uses the whole bag of tricks—leaps, scales, trills—to portray his heroine. Violetta is a kept woman perfectly content with her glamorous life and the revolving-door lovers who pay for it. When the young pup Alfredo declares his love at one of her salons, she's amused but dismissive. "Always free," she sings, and her vocal acrobatics show us just how devoted she is to grabbing everything life has to offer. Except commitment. This intimidatingly difficult aria is the key to her defiant character.There's a lot that Nuccia Focile, in the Gold Cast of Seattle Opera's current production of La traviata, gets right about Violetta: After this Act 1 declaration of independence comes love, sacrifice, anguish, and tuberculosis, all movingly expressed. In "Sempre libera," though, on opening night, she had some problems. Despite a very moderate tempo in the very solicitous hands of conductor Brian Garman, this aria was the one thing it shouldn't be: labored. And director Mark Streshinsky seems to be compensating when he brings Alfredo back onstage for a dramatic curtain clinch rather than, as is usually done, leaving Violetta alone to cap the act musically.But since opera's an art, not a science, there's always an on-the-other-hand. An alternate take on "Sempre libera" is that Violetta is trying, with increasing desperation, to convince herself she's not falling in love—an assertion of (threatened) freedom rather than an expression of it. Considering the discomfort, audible and visible, Focile evidenced during this aria, we could go the benefit-of-the-doubt route and read her Violetta as a woman at war with herself, her usual sangfroid disturbed by genuine and unprecedented attraction. And come to think of it—yet another level of verisimilitude—she did sound like a woman whose respiratory system isn't working at full capacity.The ease we expect in "Sempre libera" is instead embodied in tenor Dimitri Pittas, whose singing is warm, stylish, eloquent, and strain-free. Through the three acts, his Alfredo matures artfully from love-struck boy to ardent lover to guilt-edged adult. Third in the triangle is Germont, Alfredo's father, who persuades Violetta to leave him to save the family's reputation. It's a tricky role to act, since Germont doesn't have much to do but stand around and embody Moral Rectitude. His authority has to come from his voice, and Charles Taylor manages this impressively.La traviata throws a curve ball in the argument over whether operas ought always to be set in the time and place their libretti indicate. This piece is never not updated: Since Violetta is based on an actual person (the lover of author Alexandre Dumas) who had died only six years before the opera's premiere, the censors got nervous and instructed Verdi to set Traviata in 1700. (If we must have whores onstage, at least make them 150 years old.) As usual, set designer John Conklin and costumer David Walker ignore this, providing some serious Second Empire opulence. The Act 2 salon of Violetta's friend Flora, for one, is just about the most gorgeous set Seattle Opera's ever used, all rich dark woods and gold curtains. (The production's borrowed from San Francisco Opera.)Director Streshinsky's dumb idea to close Act 1 is balanced by a great sight gag earlier in the wittily staged banquet scene: When Violetta climbs onto the table to sing, her guests scramble to move the goblets and silver out of her way, as if she did this every night.gborchert@seattleweekly.com

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