The Sarasota Opera joined forces with the Sarasota Orchestra for a compleat production of Verdi’s “La traviata” as it opened its fall season this past Friday. I use the adjective “compleat” because it was, in almost every way, the quintessential “traviata,” complete down to its bones. It is an opportunity to hear every note Verdi wrote without any of the traditional cuts and with every repeat, second verse and cabaletta Verdi originally included.
In fact, except for two discrepancies, musically this was probably the most complete version of this great romantic tragedy you will ever hear.
According to Philip Gossett, aka the “Indiana Jones” of Italian opera, the famous first-act aria, “Sempre Libera,” was originally written in the key of A flat, not G flat, which was the key used when it was sung by Lina Tetriani, the somewhat subdued Violetta. I mention this only because the modulation down was so jarring, it almost knocked me off my seat.
But, although Tetriani (heard here recently as the luminous Magda in “La Rondine”) was in fine voice throughout the opera, she seemed unnaturally stiff and reserved, a Violetta of little passion and fire. In fact, all the leads — from tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez as Violetta’s lover, Alfredo Germont, to the rich baritone Marco Nisticò as his father, Giorgio Germont — seemed so intent on standing (or sitting) facing the audience and singing at us, almost all the passion of this opera was turned into a recital of one beautiful aria after another.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with gorgeous singing, and all the performers did that, from the leads to the chorus members and the studio and apprentice artists who took the smaller roles. But opera is supposed to give us everything, including dramatic characterizations, and this production, staged by Martha Collins, was more like a concert with scenery and costumes than a theatrical work. There wasn’t one fully drawn character in the lot and that’s a shame.
But, for pure tonal enjoyment, this was a resplendent “traviata,” filled with beautiful singing and exceptional orchestral playing.
Based on Dumas’ “La dame aux camellias,” “La traviata” is the immortal story of Violetta Valery, a high society courtesan, who finally finds love (with the younger Germont) only to have it torn from her by Germont’s father, who asks her to leave Alfredo so Germont’s daughter can marry properly, without a trace of scandal in the family. Violetta’s tuberculosis is only exacerbated by this terrible sacrifice and, in the finale’s dramatic deathbed scene, Violetta is shown to be a strong, moral human being with more character and backbone than either of the Germonts.
This may be romantic opera at its height, but it’s also real life, grabbing at your heart strings, quickening your pulse and bringing tears to your eyes every time you hear the music. The story and throbbing melodies are certainly enough to do that. But having deeply drawn characters makes “traviata” one of the greatest operas of our time. And, in a time that allows us to see great singing actors who have the whole package — great voices, the ability to move and the ability to emote — standing-still-singing just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re used to more.
Ken Yunker’s lighting certainly added dramatic effect to the old but beautiful scenery that was brought to Sarasota from New Orleans. But Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes, except for the simple nightgown and shawl worn by Violetta in the last act, added little to making any of the singers on stage real flesh-and-blood people. Violetta’s first-act gown looked more suited for a bridal procession than a high-class brothel. And her “at home” gown in the second act, where she is at home in the country, relaxing, was much too buttoned up and dressed up than anything we’d expect this woman to wear in the privacy of her sun-dappled home with her lover.
This is neither a dramatically riveting nor a visually satisfying production. But the music is glorious, the orchestra first-rate, and the singers excellent. Just close your eyes, listen and be transported.