02 August 2009

Glimmerglass 2009: La Traviata

No flower, no cross, no walking around:
The final scene of Miller’s
Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

This weekend, thanks to the sublime Joyce Castle, I attended three performances at the Glimmerglass Opera festival, in Cooperstown, New York. I had to miss a new staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (because a guy can’t be everywhere), but the shows I did see gave me plenty to think about. I’ll treat each separately, beginning with the second opera I saw, Verdi’s La Traviata, in a revival of a production directed by Jonathan Miller.

Pace Sir Jonathan, but the principal interest for me lay in the Violetta of soprano Mary Dunleavy. The role is one of her calling-cards, and it’s easy to see why: she’s petite and pretty, an excellent, thoroughly natural actress, endowed with a voice of winning clarity, flexibility, and point. At various points in the score, Violetta must marshal stirring outbursts, coloratura ornamentation, and soft lyrical singing. Any soprano who doesn’t manage to deliver all — underscore all — of these goods is doomed to fail, and that’s one reason I love Traviata: it’s a test of great singers, and all my totem divas have excelled at it.

McPherson and Dunleavy
Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Traviata relates one of the simplest and most immediately recognizable of stories: young love thwarted by family, money, and ill health, and who among us hasn’t experienced some part of that? Such is Verdi’s skill that, each time I hear the score, I honestly believe everything is going to work out for Violetta and Alfredo. I’m still not sure how that’s possible, yet it’s clear that I want them to prevail. I know these people, I like these people, and I want the best for them.

The natural ease and realism of Dunleavy’s acting chimed nicely with Miller’s direction, I think, and I caught in her interpretation some lovely touches: the sense, for example, that Violetta is on the point of laughing in Alfredo’s face when he first declares his love, so ridiculous does it seem, until he wins her over. (She was less lucky with conductor Mikhail Agrest, and at one point had to blast right past him when he was unable to coordinate his players with her tempo.)

Miller’s a medical man by training, and his “accurate” depiction of Violetta’s death has been much talked-about: too weak to move, she never leaves her bed. This is all well and good, but it didn’t work for me. After all, Verdi wasn’t writing a treatise on tuberculosis, he was writing a drama of spiritual redemption, in which the dying heroine is uplifted morally by her suffering and death. That’s reflected in the music, and it should be in the blocking, too, at the very least during Violetta’s final outpouring. The notes ascend, and so should she — until Verdi brings her down with a thundering crash. Miller made Dunleavy stay put, the composer’s clear intent was ignored, and the impact of an otherwise very fine performance was diminished.

Quite a long way beyond the fringe: Miller directs.

As the men in her life, Ryan McPherson (Alfredo) and Malcolm MacKenzie (Germont) were terrific, but nowhere near Dunleavy’s league. McPherson benefited from the intimacy of the Alice Busch Opera Theater, projecting a vibrant (albeit not massive) tenor voice and a thoughtful portrayal; his “Un dì, felice” took on the pleasing dimensions of a guitar serenade. MacKenzie, by contrast, rattled the rafters with his stentorian outpourings, though his acting remained restrained and subtle.

Throughout the weekend, I was impressed with the caliber of the company’s Young American Artists, and the payoff in Traviata was one of the most striking Anninas I’ve ever seen. Rebecca Jo Loeb was far prettier and younger than most, and in addition to the requisite and expected devotion to Violetta, she put forward plenty of saucy vitality. As a result, her Annina was a fully realized character.

Apart from those questionable choices in the death scene, Miller’s no-frills staging came as a relief after so many overblown productions elsewhere, and it came closer to the spirit depicted by Alexandre Dumas fils in La Dame aux camélias. Granted, Dumas’ heroine probably had nicer wallpaper Miller’s Violetta does. But Flora Bervoix really shouldn’t hire a corps de ballet for her party in Act III — and in this production, she and her guests do the dancing themselves, quite expertly. The smashing Young American Artist Liza Forrester did the honors as Flora.

Everybody dance now! Forrester (left) as Flora
Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

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