Opera purists may quibble that radical German director Peter Konwitschny’s paring down of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” is sacrilegious. Yet Konwitschny’s version, in a revival by Mika Blauensteiner for Seattle Opera, has distilled “La Traviata,” to its gripping essence, both musically and theatrically.
Both score and orchestra of Verdi’s famous opera about the ill-fated courtesan Violetta, forced to renounce the love of her life forever, have been downsized. And there is no longer any intermission.
The set is also minimalist: a chair, a pile of books, some playing cards and staggered rows of blood red stage curtains. The curtains slide open and closed to create new locations and symbolize underlying themes. As Violetta’s relationship with her love, Alfredo, collapses, most of the curtains fall to the floor.
I disagree with those who insist that pulling this opera out of its original setting doesn’t work. Verdi set La Traviata in Verdi’s 19th century in order to force his audience to face their own disingenuous social mores about a sexual outcast. This production follows suit, bringing the story into our era with costumes that range throughout the 20th century, as well as a nod to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” Which is apropos, since too many of us today still apply double standards to sex workers, high class or otherwise, and female sexuality.
Corinne Winters, Violetta in the second Saturday cast, performed the role in Konwitschny’s London production. Her Violetta is a sublime blend of fiery and fragile. Plus she has a gorgeously clear soprano voice, progressing with eloquent ease from fierce to desperate to seriously ill, on even the highest notes.
In this production, Alfredo is a nerdy intellectual who dresses in a cardigan and corduroys at a formal party. With a smooth tenor voice laced with boyish passion, Joshua Dennis does a beautiful job as the naïve Alfredo, who truly loves Violetta but is clueless about the realities involved.
Baritone Weston Hurt is a manipulative schemer as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, aiming to get exactly what he wants for his children. Moving from threatening to charming, his baritone was warmly resonant and at it best in the aria Di provenza, convincing his son to stop thinking about Violetta.
From the first delicately spare opening strains, conductor Stefano Ranzani and his orchestra expressed the score with a vibrant nuance that buoyed up the singers. The chorus was in fine voice, and this was some of their best work as the hedonistic and voyeuristic partygoers.
That said, I found some things awkward. Partygoers crawling away from Violetta in the darkness of a scene change to get offstage were distracting. Alfredo appeared unfeeling when he had to abruptly walk away from Violetta in order to get around the open orchestra pit to join his father to do a slow pull away, showing her moving into death’s solitude.
And other audience members had other issues. Some didn’t like the dramatic shadows and darkness of Martin Doone’s lighting, which didn’t bother me. I overheard a few people discussing confusion over why Violetta and Alfredo were pulling something invisible. I, on the other hand, saw it as the two trying unsuccessfully to pull the curtains, and their relationship, back into the time before both collapse at Flora’s party.
Still, the enthusiastic standing ovation on the production’s second Saturday spoke louder than the criticisms, which will always be there whenever an artist challenges convention.
Seattle Opera’s “La Traviata” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., through Saturday, Feb. 30. Prices $25-$229. Tickets/information: 389-7676, www.seattleopera.org.
MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelance writer who lives in the Seattle area.