25 July 2008

Review of Lake George Opera at Saratoga’s production of La Traviata

On Sunday, July 13th, I had the great privilege of watching Verdi’s La Traviata in Saratoga Springs, NY, in a new production directed by David Lefkowich. This was my sister Nadine’s last performance of the season as a studio artist with the Lake George Opera. She spent time with LGO in the winter as a pianist, then again in the summer as a chorus member, and sang in solo or duet recitals during both seasons. Now she is off to the Berkshire Opera Company, where she will join their presentation of La Nozze de Figaro.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a live opera (I guess the last one was the Met’s Opera in the Park performance of Gounod’s Faust in the summer of 2007, and that wasn’t staged—but glorious!), and I was ravished again by the glory of the form. It truly is the Gesampkunstwerk, the total art work. Song, instrumental music, acting, dance, text, visual art in the set and costumes, all united in one heart-wrenching archetypal story of human emotion at its highest pitch.

This particular production took a staple from the classic repertoire and refreshed it in the most astonishing way. In a brilliant twist, the director set this story of a “fallen women” in Las Vegas in the 1950s! This not only made the plot and characters “accessible,” it also added an ingenious interpretive angle. The story, in brief, is the tale of Violetta, a society woman who lives for shallow “pleasures”: drinking, gambling, sleeping around. She falls in love with a young fellow, Alfredo, as morally transitory as herself, and their mutual commitment begins to redeem them and raise them out of their spiritual squalor. But then the boyfriend’s father comes and convinces here that, for the good of the family, she must give him up. She makes the ultimate sacrifice, returning to a previous lover to make her departure convincing (and also, probably, to have a way to survive physically/financially). There’s a fight between her two lovers, and a heart-brekaing final scene when Alfredo and his father come to beg forgiveness and she dies in their arms. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that she had “consumption” all along. Which, Nadine told me, was a delicate 19th century euphemism for all kinds of things, including STDs.

So the story is the same as that of the old B&W film Camille; both are based on Dumas’ novel The Girl of the Camillas, a wandering, even-less-redemptive novel (what did you expect from Dumas?).

But just stop and ponder the effect of the modern setting on that story! Since it was set in Vegas, Violetta’s party lifestyle immediately became clear to a 21st century audience. She was a casino socialite, ruining her life among playing cards and poker chips, drowning her emptiness in cheap champagne. Alfredo was the rich young party boy, spending his father’s money at billiards and the card table. The father was a Mafioso type of Italian patriarch, endued with the 1950s sense of superficial morality. Just as the 1850s, so the 1950s were horrified at cohabitation, and rushed to cover it up so the family name would not be stained. By putting this story into the time of (what do we call them) Leave-it-to-Beaver families, the director made the family’s attitude towards Alfredo and Violetta’s lifestyle perfectly clear and understandable. And in the end, when Violetta lies dying alone, she’s in a cheap hotel room—the abandoned mistress, the homeless society woman at the end of her rope, alone in the anonymous city. It was brilliant!

This updating of the setting is a microcosm of a current trend in the opera world, so Nadine tells me. Directors and producers sudden find themselves competing with Hollywood for fame, audiences, and screen time. Live broadcasts of operas on the big screen in movie theatres is becoming popular—and I think that’s all for the best. Why not bring the greatest music ever composed to a place frequented by millions of young Americans? Why not give teenagers opera in a form they can relate to? Also, the picture and sound quality of the new digital projection surround-sound theatres means that you can see and hear even more than you could if you were sitting in the actual theatre where the opera was being performed. Thanks to the “magic” of film, you can get zoomed-in shots of the singer’s faces at just the right moment, or panned shots of the whole stage, or close-ups of the conductor and orchestra during the overture and preludes. Costumes can have their fullest effect, and sub- or super-titles can be closer than ever to the action so they’re less distracting and more integrated. Plus it’s cheaper: about $15.00 for a ticket to watch a live broadcast in the theatre, as compared to $50.00-$150.00 for seats in a typical Opera house.

But there’s one drawback, at least for rising opera stars themselves. Now they have to be young, thin, and beautiful in addition to being talented singers. They have to be stunning actors with vital stage presence and mobile, expressive faces. They have to be really good dancers. All this while still trying to master the extremely complex art of operatic singing—and the operatic voice doesn’t mature until around age 30, when lots of movie stars are retiring (or having their faces and bodies reconstructed by plastic surgeons). So opera singers have to be young and mature, beautiful and grown-up, skinny and full-voiced—a nearly impossible combination. The mountainous soprano with the voice of a goddess (whose waist the tenor couldn’t span with his two arms) is giving way to the waifish, spindly chick with the voice of a reed. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. Personally, I don’t mind if the singers are both lovely to listen to and lovely to watch!!

And the updated setting not just a cheap trick to try to make the opera relevant to 21st century audiences. Or 20th century audiences: I was one of the youngest people in the crowd, by about 30 years, no joke. On the contrary; directors of opera and theatre alike have a long tradition of updating the settings of their stories to show the timelessness of the plot and the underlying themes. Putting Romeo and Juliet on a beach in California in the ’60s, Hamlet in a large NYC corporation in the ’90s, Henry V as the British fighting the Germans in WWII—these are all Shakespearean productions that have worked, and worked well. I see no reason not to do the same thing with Verdi. And if this LGO production was any indication, updating operas is not only workable, it’s fantastic!!


Conductor: Mark. D. Flint (whose head and arms only were visible above the set; the orchestra played from above and behind the singers!

Violetta: Elizabeth Andrews Roberts. I heard a woman say, during intermission, “This is the best Violetta I have ever seen! And I’ve seen La Traviata over 50 times. This is the best Violetta—better than the Met!”
Alfredo: Marc Schreiner. He wasn’t quite as good. I like his voice, thought it had a sweet quality, although Nadine said his singing was very strained. But he was an awful actor. Quite the pretty boy, but an artificial actor. All his gestures was stock and fake, as if someone had said, “Now, clasp your hands and shake your head.” (That’s all he did most of the time). Yet the Violetta was good enough to make up for his weaknesses. And, honestly, he did better when he was singing, especially his solo arias. When he had nothing to sing and was supposed to act, he was awful. But his Act II aria was, I thought, very well executed.
Giorgio Germont: Kelly Anderson. Very good! The classic stern father figure, with a touch of Mafioso.
Doctor Grenvil: Christopher Temporelli.
Also other small roles played and chorus lines sung by apprentice and studio artists, mostly dressed as wealthy casino patrons or—ahem—Burlesque dancers.

Nadine as a Vegas casino patron:

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