La Traviata, Verdi

Glimmerglass Opera

16th August, 2009

Dusty Answer

Traviata is one of those bread-and-butter pieces that opera houses rely on, especially during tough times, to bring in the patrons and to fill the coffers. This may explain why one so rarely sees anything but a “traditional” production of it, even as its material is versatile and the drama so vivid and psychologically probing that it surely can withstand, and benefit from, new interpretations. Glimmerglass Opera’s new production of La Traviata, directed by Jonathan Miller, was thus something of a disappointment in its mostly predictable take on Dumas’ and Verdi’s masterpiece, replete with gilded ballrooms, candy-colored taffeta gowns, and tinkling chandeliers. Though relatively tastefully executed (with notably elegant lighting by Robert Wierzel), confining the opera to these well-worn, “period” tropes, in my mind, limited its ability to transcend.

As if to apologize for this aesthetic conservatism, the director had at least taken care to try and elicit some fresh readings of the characters from the singers. Recitatives and ensembles were notably thoughtful from all of the leads: time was taken, and there was genuine interaction, spontaneity, and intimacy on stage.

This was somewhat less true in the arias, as conductor Mikhail Agrest never seemed to get into a groove with any of the singers, his tempi seeming all a bit unnatural and forced. One often sensed a struggle for control in the rubato of the bel canto more than a shared sense of breath and line.

Photos by: Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Mary Dunleavy presented an introspective and un-clichéed heroine, offering novel insights such as the deep fear Violetta feels in her opening recitative (“E strano . . .”) at consciously choosing to open her heart to love. She slumped into a sofa, already exhausted by the notion of the journey she was committing herself to, and we were aware of the real risk the choice would present and of her aloneness in the world. I imagine Ms. Dunleavy can not only act but can also sing the role quite well, though I reserve judgment from this performance in particular, as an announcement was made of the soprano’s illness, and her vocal distress became increasingly (and distressingly) apparent throughout the afternoon. Considering her vocal state, she still managed to produce a warm, inviting sound in most of her range, and the pianissimo “Dite alla giovine” was a stunning example of dramatic focus and presence.

The other star of the night was Malcolm MacKenzie as Giorgio Germont, whose gorgeously rich, aristocratic sound and surprisingly lyrical top soared out into the house. He unfortunately had been costumed with excessive (though historically accurate!) facial hair that made him look like a bit like a Newfoundland in a suit, and here again I questioned the wisdom of adhering to a “period” aesthetic at all costs.

Ryan MacPherson, as Alfredo, was a gutsy and sincere performer and a convincing lover, utterly focused on his beloved, a humble quality that is unfortunately all too rare among tenors. The Act I a cappella duet-cadenza with Violetta was especially remarkable from both of them in its intimate intensity.

The smaller roles varied from barely competent to excellent, a standout being Rebecca Jo Loeb as Annina, who actually found a personality in the role of a maid and had such a present, beautiful sound (both in this and in her small role of the Sailor in Dido and Aeneas) that she seemed underused as a Young Artist this festival season.

All of the Young Artists (and the other locals in the chorus) certainly got a workout in the Flora’s Party scene, which had been elaborately choreographed with “Spanish” flair. Although I admired the chorus’s ability to learn and execute this staging, even they could not save this scene from being the dramatic morass that it unfailingly is.

Can anyone stage this scene (or any of the party scenes, for that matter) in a “traditional” production nowadays without it seeming entirely camp? The costumes were freshly designed and constructed, but necessarily had the feel of having been fished out of a dusty warehouse, relics from a bygone era in which women striking tambourines on their hips was somehow scintillating. I suppose I found this dichotomy of the production to be frustrating, or even disturbing: Mr. Miller clearly cared enough to (subtly) re-think many of the dramatic details of the opera; but he did not challenge himself or us much beyond that, and was content to play it safe and not defy our expectations of big, off-the-shoulder gowns, stiff-backed gentlemen, and the victimized courtesan with a heart of gold. Does this opera, this masterpiece of psychodrama, deserve better from such an intelligent and important director? Yes. But I bet this version filled Glimmerglass’s coffers, and the champagne in the donors’ pavilion flowed freely during the intermission.

Bottom line: Chicken Soup for the Old Opera Fan


Georges Briscot


Production Credits

New Co-production with Vancouver Opera

Conductor: Mikhail Agrest
Director: Jonathan Miller
Scenery & Costumes: Isabella Bywater
Lighting: Robert Wierzel
Choreographer: Terry John Bates
Hair & Makeup: Anne Ford-Coates


Violetta Valéry: Mary Dunleavy
Alfredo Germont: Ryan MacPherson
Giorgio Germont: Malcolm MacKenzie
Flora Bervoix: Liza Forrester
Marchese D’Obigny: Damien Pass
Barone Douphol: Michael Krzankowski
Grenvil: David Kravitz
Gastone: John Rodger
Annina: Rebecca Jo Loeb
Giuseppe: Steven Brennfleck
Commissario: Kevin Wetzel
Servant: Adam Fry