The Most Beautiful Music – La Traviata at Seattle Opera

Seattle Opera 2017 La Traviata McCaw Hall

Corinne Winters (Violetta). Seattle Opera 2017 La Traviata Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

People are getting pretty worked up about the unusual production of La Traviata currently playing at Seattle Opera. But really, the production isn’t very important. What really matters about La Traviata is the music, that exquisite, heavenly music. 

Opera music is often used in soundtracks for everything from cartoons to commercials. So even people who are not interested in opera will recognize the biggest arias from the classic operas. But La Traviata is like Pearl Jam’s Ten – almost every one of its songs has been a hit single. In fact, it’s not just famous arias – just the line “Amami, Alfredo” is as recognizable as “We’ll always have Paris.” I was surprised to recognize most of the opera, and even more surprised at how powerful it is once you hear it in proper context.

I saw it on opening night, when both leads made their Seattle Opera debut. Soprano Corinne Winters sang the lead, Violetta; Tenor Joshua Dennis was her Alfredo. I don’t know if Violetta is considered a challenging role, but I do know that the success of Traviata hinges on its Violetta, who is rarely offstage during the opera’s hour and fifty minutes. Winters voiced Violetta with both power and sweetness through a wide and complex range of emotions. Her voice is very different from that of my soprano crush Elizabeth Caballero, but it’s an Arwen/Galadriel kind of comparison (for nerds of a different stripe). I look forward to seeing her again as Katya in the next opera of this season (singing opposite Dennis’ twin brother in that one- sounding delightfully like the setup for an opera plot!).

Seattle Opera 2017 La  Traviata McCaw Hall

Joshua Dennis (Alfredo). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera

Dennis was so perfectly cast as Alfredo Germond. He did more than sing the role, he acted it. I mean, all opera singers are also actors, but Dennis would have been a good Alfredo even if he hadn’t sung at all. From his schlubby sweater and glasses to the way he moved his hands, everything about him communicated his idealism, his inexperience and immaturity, his hapless ineffectuality. Really, it’s just a love affair, but Alfredo is in over his head. That his voice paired so sublimely with Winters’ was almost a bonus. This is one time I really wish I could go back and see the second cast, too, as I did with Tosca, because I’m so curious to hear the voices of Angel Blue, a soprano with a beautiful face and intriguing biography and hunkentenor Zach Borichevsky.

And of course, I welcomed the arrival of Weston Hurt’s bass-baritone, as always, even if this interpretation made Mr. Germont closer to a villain than a narrow-minded bourgeois father. Mr. Germont leads me to confess – the production is an unusual and interesting one. The set design, as minimal as anything I’ve ever seen on stage (the set consists entirely of curtains and a single chair), forces the viewer to focus on the story. The curtains help tell the story, too, opening and closing and even falling down in concert with the characters’ emotional state.

This production is the work of stage director Peter Konwitschny. Jonathan Dean’s article in the program quotes him:

La Traviata is not a love story, but the story of a woman who discovers she is dying and who refuses to accept that fact.

He also says of Violetta:

She is the only human being in the story.

Dean explains how Konwitschny wanted to force viewers to think about the message in La Traviata instead of getting swept away in the emotion, and I’d say he succeeded.  I usually cry at the opera. I even teared up listening to the recording of La Traviata as I wrote this post. But even though I was fully investing in the performance, I was dry eyed at the theater. Afterwards, my opera buddy and I had one of our most vigorous discussions (of opera) ever, ranging from stagecraft through history and feminist theory just in the time it took to drive home.

Corinne Winters (Violetta) and Joshua Dennis (Alfredo). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera 2017

Corinne Winters (Violetta) and Joshua Dennis (Alfredo). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera 2017

This was my first Traviata, but La Traviata was her first opera, more years ago than now seem possible to us. The production she saw was traditionally extravagant, and featured a different sort of soprano. She has been out of operatic commission for the last season or so, at home with a nursing baby. But for this La Traviata, she left her baby to go to sleep at night without her for the first time. La Traviata holds a special place in her heart that could never be replaced by a different staging. But Gimli’s conclusion vis a vis Arwen and Galadriel is appropriate once again. The two productions are different as morning sun and evening moon, yet the beauty of both is incomparable and only a fool would attempt to choose a favorite between them. Like all good art, La Traviata holds up to multiple interpretations, with each highlighting different aspects of the story; one’s appreciation can only be deepened through their various approaches.

I read Camille in college, I’ve seen Moulin Rouge more times than I like to admit, and I’ve often complained about opera’s misogyny problem, but I never noticed the social criticism in this story before. Yes, the courtesan dies for love (they always do) but La Traviata lays the blame not on a villainous nobleman, but squarely on the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality. It’s as close to feminism as Venice in 1853 could swallow. And in fact, they barely did. Censors insisted on the fancy historical costumes and setting that everyone is used to today as a distraction from the ugly point of the story.

Corinne Winters (Violetta), Eliana Harrick (Germont's Daugher), and Weston Hurt (Germont). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera 2017

Corinne Winters (Violetta), Eliana Harrick (Germont’s Daugher), and Weston Hurt (Germont). Philip Newton photo c/o Seattle Opera 2017

Now back to Mr. Germont. In the book, he only appeals to the heroine’s nobility of character and generosity of spirit (characteristics she would not have if she were as condemnable as society would treat her) to save the honor of his family. In this Traviata, he trots his young daughter out as a prop, basically blackmailing Violetta with the idea that her lover’s kid sister will be made unmarriageable (and therefore forced into the life Violetta has fled) by Violetta’s continued relationship with Alfredo. To top it off, his words are belied by his physical performance, which makes it clear that he doesn’t care a bit about the girl and is using her as a prop. Thus far it’s a masterful addition; by making Germont a villainous embodiment of the hypocrisy Verdi condemned, his message is harder to ignore.

The trick is, Germont’s lines throughout the rest of the story don’t match up. The rest of the opera, he’s back to the original conflicted character in a tough situation who does wrong out of a twisted sense of righteousness. I haven’t found a way to resolve this to myself yet. There are a few other, smaller sticking points for me. A couple places that I can’t quite make sense of, that I can only describe as feeling very German. If time and money allowed, I wish I could go back and watch it again to figure it out.

But mostly I want to hear that sweet, sweet music again.

La Traviata will be performed at McCaw Hall Jan. 15, 18, 21, 22, 25, 27, & 28, 2017

Best Pricing and Availability On Sun., Jan. 22

Tickets available here (not an affiliate link).

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