La Traviata at the Washington National Opera

The score, with its Mozartean transparency,
magnifies any musicianship misstep – a single wrong note! –
tenfold. Its blend of vocal virtuosity and realistic, if maudlin, plot leaves
few creative options to the director (if there are any “modern”
traviatas, I’ve never met them…), and demands that the
principals merge traditionally “operatic” vocalization with
heavily Stanislavskian acting, so often detrimental to sound production. Yet
Verdi’s 1853 war horse is a perennial favorite with audiences: the
fast-paced, and despite its familiarity and our modern cynicism still
heart-breaking melodrama is, above all, eminently watchable. This arresting
quality of La traviata may often insulate its troupe, assuring
success despite the inevitable mistakes that creep into any live performance,
and even larger issues of miscasting and under-rehearsing. Sooner or later,
Verdi’s vivid characters take over the most jaded critic, forcing her
to set aside her quill. But the assurance of success breeds complacency: all
too often, opera companies are happy to rest on Verdi’s laurels,
forgetting how difficult to crack this old chestnut of his really is. When I
finally caught up with the Washington National Opera’s La
(co-produced with the Los Angeles Opera) on October 2nd, that
amnesia – whether inherent in the production or brought on by the
end-of-the-run fatigue, I cannot say – was painfully in evidence.

Traviata_9_08_85.pngArturo ChacÛn -Cruz (foreground) as Alfredo and Lado Ataneli (background) as Giorgio Germont. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

Elizabeth Futral as Violetta has clearly learned her arias; the set pieces
were technically proficient, sounded well, and deserved their applause. But
in the faster-paced declamatory scenes the singer seemed distracted by the
demands of the acting and had significant projection troubles. On occasion,
Ms Futral appeared to be making a visible, physical effort to push the sound
out, which, ironically, made her look like a consumptive patient struggling
for breath. Arturo ChacÛn-Cruz as Alfredo had no problem being heard: he was
consistently and almost annoyingly loud; to me, much more nuance was called
for, but the audience loved it. The singer, however, seemed mostly in love
with himself. He appeared to be having great difficulty tearing himself away
from the proscenium long enough to acknowledge the love of his life stationed
behind him, or any other characters with whom he was supposedly interacting.
As a result, ChacÛn-Cruz came across as an old-fashioned “tenor”
– thankfully, a dying breed among young singers these days.

Clearly, both leads had issues with staying in control of either the vocal
or dramatic aspects of their roles. Conductor Dan Ettinger, for his part, was
in full control and delighted in exercising it, for instance, by holding each
fermata in the score for twice its usual duration. Yet his tempi were often
questionable – either too slow, creating additional obstacles for the
singers already struggling with projection, or too fast, as in the opening
scene, in which both the chorus and the orchestra had tremendous trouble
keeping up. The chorus recovered by its second appearance in Act 2 Scene 2;
the orchestra, however, did not. Indeed, throughout the performance it
exhibited deficiencies in pitch, rhythm, sound quality, and balance
inexcusable in a professional ensemble, with the horns particularly

Traviata_9_08_1#7E05.pngElizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

The most successful aspect of the performance I witnessed was the
production itself. Marta Domingo offered traditional but mostly
unobjectionable staging, with the single puzzling exception of what was
presumably the Spirit of Death lifting and twirling Violetta around the stage
during the Act 3 carnival chorus. Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and
costumes were spectacular, particularly Flora’s gorgeously crimson
multi-level bordello, the sight of which made the audience break into
spontaneous applause. Neither the designs nor the direction were created for
WNO, however: they have been seen in LA, and are featured on the 2007 Decca
DVD recording of the opera with RenÈe Fleming and Rolando VillazÛn. The
exception is an updated version of the not-so-little black dress that
Violetta wears to Flora’s bordello party – and it is stunning! Ms
Fleming clearly got cheated in the wardrobe department. As for the rest of
the production, which closed on October 5th, the fact that my readers will
not be able to see it for themselves may be a blessing: for the glorious
visuals and the equally glorious sound, I do recommend the DVD.

Olga Haldey

image_description=Arturo ChacÛn -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.
product_title=G. Verdi: La Traviata
product_by=Violetta ValÈry (Elizabeth Futral), Alfredo Germont (Arturo ChacÛn-Cruz), Flora Bervoix (Margaret Thompson), Giorgio Germont (Lado Ataneli), Annina (Micaela Oeste), Gastone (Yingxi Zhang), Baron Douphol (Nathan Herfindahl), Marchese D’Obigny (Grigory Soloviov), Doctor Grenvil (Oleksandr Pushniak), Solo Dancer (Eric Rivera). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Dan Ettinger. Director: Marta Domingo.
product_id=Above: Arturo ChacÛn -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.