Last Friday night, The Dallas Opera produced Guiseppe Verdi's La traviata in the Winspear opera house for the first time. La traviata is one of opera's most frequently produced and biggest hits. Lead by strong vocal and instrumental performances and underscored by a stunning production, this La traviata is a solid effort by The Dallas Opera that does justice both to Verdi's score and our city's fantastic new opera house.
La traviata is set in the decadent world of 19th-century Paris. It's the story of Violatta, a beautiful young courtesan who lives for pleasure until she falls unexpectedly into a passionate love affair and subsequently dies an untimely death. When we first meet Violetta, she is living what appears to be a charmed life, flitting from one party to another on the arms of a wealthy baron for whom she has no affection and is clearly using (most apparently for the gaudy jewels draped around her neck). She knows that she is dying of tuberculosis and seems to have resigned herself to having as much fun as possible before her illness becomes undeniable.
On Friday night, this party girl's intoxicating world was enticing. The set, which comes to us via the Florida Grand Opera, is appropriately extravagant. All too often, when opera companies attempt lavish versions of La traviata, the result is cheesy or tacky. This production, however, succeeds visually. Large shutters draped in gold and crimson anchor a lavishly decorated stage in the party scenes. During Act I, this backdrop was perfectly suited for the swirling brandisi (drinking song) lead by Violetta's lover, Alfredo. Libiamo libiamo ne'lieti calici, or in English "Let's drink, let's drink from this merry chalice" is perhaps the most recognizable tune in La traviata and American tenor Jame Valenti, backed by the Dallas Opera's chorus, gave a fabulously rousing rendition amidst the lush scenery.
Violetta is a dramatically and vocally challenging role and ultimately the success of any Traviata lies in the hands of the actress portraying her. Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu made her American debut in this production and on Friday her performance was effective and touching. Papatanasiu's technical ability is impressive, with fantastic agility in the highest ranges and consistent artistry in phrasing and dynamic choices. She did not pull off the high E flat at the end of the first act with ease or beauty and there was a lack of warmth to her timbre at times, but her overall vocal performance was technically strong and highly artistic.
Throughout La Traviata, Verdi's heroine is quickly thrust from one emotional scene to another and the plot bumps along rather abruptly. It helps to remember that in Verdi's operas the plot is a means to an end. The ultimate goal is the vocal and emotional expression of the characters as they react to their circumstances. As an actress, Papatanasiu gave a very convincing performance, equally effective as flashy party girl, heartbroken lover, and tragically frail invalid.
As Violetta's lover, Alfredo, American tenor James Valenti was most noticeably tall and incredibly handsome (read: eye candy, ladies). His chemistry with Papatanasiu was believable, but his overall dramatic performance a bit stiff. Vocally, however, they were well matched and his tone and attention to dynamic detail were exceptional. Baritone Laurent Naouri gave a solid performance as Alfredo's father, if not also a bit stiff.
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The orchestra, led by Italian conductor Marco Guidarini, captured the energetic character of Verdi's score and played a key role in the success of this production. There were moments in which orchestra and singers were not perfectly in sync, but this can be overlooked when the orchestral score is played with such vitality and warmth.
"In the theater," Verdi wrote, "lengthy is synonymous with boring, and of all styles the boring style is the worst." While La traviata clocks in at around three hours, it is broken up into very manageable sections with two intermissions. The first act in particular seems to fly by in a flurry of gowns, flirtations, drinking, and falling in love. In the final act, the luxurious set is cloaked in black and Papatanasiu gives such a tender performance as the dying Violetta that you find yourself wishing the opera were just a little longer so that she could keep singing.
Don't miss this opportunity to see a solidly sung and beautifully produced La traviata. The Dallas Opera is presenting four more performance (April 18, 21, 27, and 29) and you can find tickets and more information here.
Also, while you will want to make sure your phone is switched to silent, don't put it too far away. During the intermissions there is a live twitter feed and you can tweet your own opinions and see them displayed. On Friday night, there were no takers, but maybe we can change that.