Friday, June 1, 2018

In St. Louis production, 'La Traviata' blends its realism with symbolic heft

Final moments: Violetta and Alfredo.
Time has allowed the scandal of Giuseppe Verdi's use of contemporary material and setting in "La Traviata" to mellow toward a more freely situated milieu and the kind of symbolic treatment that the
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gives the work in its new production.

If it had debuted as a movie, the story of the consumptive courtesan redeemed, betrayed, then finally redeemed by love would be marketed as "based on a true story."

For the legendary figure of Marie Duplessis, the toast of haut-monde Paris for a few brief years in the 19th century, haunts "La Traviata" completely. Similarly, she haunted the infatuated Alexandre Dumas the younger, among many others, in his La dame aux camellias, the play that inspired Verdi to make an opera out of a modern story.

In her directorial debut, the veteran soprano Patricia Racette has updated the 1853 opera to the 1930s without doing violation to it. We might wonder if the treatment of what we now call tuberculosis was still so rudimentary and ineffectual eighty-some years ago. Then again, the importance of the dread disease to our ancestors is itself symbolic — centered on blood, breathing, the snuffing out of bright young lives, often in a burst of ominous energy before succumbing. Thus considered, consumption occupies a niche in the imagination beyond medical progress.

This significance results in the choice to have Sydney Mancasola's striking portrayal of Violetta end in a transfiguration. The heaven that she has devoutly prayed for in the final stage of her illness seems to open up for her. Her final cry of joy and declaration that she has been released from pain take place beyond the world of her suffering, as the mourners around her deathbed form a tableau.

The gateway to Violetta's deserved place of rest is the center of a camellia, magnified in Laura Jellinek's set design to be a constant backdrop, seen in various gorgeous lights  over the course of the
show, thanks to Christopher Akerlind's richly suggestive design. The camellia is blood-red in the center as Act 3 begins and a vein-blue all around it. Just as it sums up the vividness of her illness there, earlier, at the point of her humiliation at the end of the second act, the blossom turns a ghastly gray.

As brilliant as Akerlind's lighting is there, it attained sublimity in the foreground of that scene. The fiery costume party at the fashionable Flora's has been consumed by Alfredo's jealous misunderstanding of Violetta's resumption of an old affair, and reduced to embers when he flings his gambling winnings at  her feet. His father Giorgio, who knows the truth about the sacrifice Violetta has been forced to make, upbraids him as the formerly frivolous party-goers exile him for his outrageous breach of etiquette.

The lighting puts Alfredo in light and shadow, the chiaroscuro of tragedy. It puts the humiliated Violetta in a saintly glow and is articulate but slightly dimmer with the figure of the senior Germont. As the enraged ensemble swells toward the final chords, the effect is overwhelming. Such strong production values make this the Italian "Gesamtkunstwerk" at its apex for today.

It was at this point that Racette's updating made the most sense  to me. Visually, the entire production seems inspired by the insightful photography of Brassai in 1930s Paris, though his lens was directed lower on the social scale. His party scenes, with their outrĂ© costumes and fragile conviviality, as well as his lonely street views, many of them focusing on prostitutes, have an eerie resonance as the story of "the  strayed (or fallen) one" is told once again in music of uncommon cogency and integrity.

The sense of an unsettled world gets further underpinning in the use of a  turntable in the first and third acts.  In the first instance, it represents the uncertain position of Violetta as an admired center
Violetta Valery as the cynosure of all eyes.
of  fashionable Paris whose status cannot ever be respectable. In the latter case, it revolves slowly as the dying courtesan occupies alone the loneliest carousel any of us will ever ride. The turntable is not overused: in both acts, it is representative of life's cycles of fortune as experienced by one remarkable woman.

Mancasola displayed the requisite range of Verdi's heroine. She must seem almost three different people, and the music follows suit: shallow but undeniably attractive in the first act, heroic, self-sacrificial and desperate in the second, pathetic and angelic in the finale. The audience must believe that Violetta encompasses all these qualities, and Mancasola, with her firmly centered soprano brilliantly projected and secure in all registers, delivered. The long scene with the self-involved but sympathetic Germont in Act  2 succeeded, as seen Wednesday night, in being more moving in some ways than Violetta's sustained, transcendent departure from life in Act 3.

Alfredo Germont (Geoffrey Agpalo) only has eyes for Violetta.
Joo Won Kang was impressive as the senior Germont, though somewhat wooden at first. Yet such reserve is also essential to the role, and his warming to Violetta needs a gradualness that Kang supplied. As Alfredo, Geoffrey Agpalo  overcame a slight tendency to go sharp in the first act, and soon secure pitch was firmly joined to a portrait of sustained ardor. From the start, his acting was on point; he reflected how smitten Alfredo was with Violetta before getting to know her; like most love relationships in opera, this one happens quickly. Best of all, Agpalo's diction was so clear that when he was singing, one hardly had to check the surtitles to follow the English translation.

Giorgio Germont reminds his son of the good provincial life he's abandoned.
The supporting roles were all fittingly filled, and the choral ensembles in the party scenes of the first and second acts were sturdy and vivid. Racette moved the crowd about naturally, and she showed good instincts for giving solo singers appropriate action. In the first scene of the second act, just as it made sense for the confused, passionate Alfredo to pace about the stage like a caged animal, it was also suitable for him and his father to be seated on a country-estate bench for the nostalgic aria known in the original as Di Provenza il mar.

Christopher Allen guided the kaleidoscope of Verdian brilliance astutely from the pit, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra giving the accompaniment a reliable flair. The prelude to the first act set the opera's atmosphere as indelibly as the outsized, ever-shifting camellia of the set.

Marie Duplessis was said to have favored camellias because the redolence of all other flowers was unpleasant to her. In all respects, this uniqueness of taste and the apprehension of life's pleasures -- "Let me try them all!" Violetta exclaims in her first-act scena -- has been carried forward to our time and this Webster University stage by the OTSL production.

[Photos by Ken Hosard]