WASHINGTON, October 11, 2018. The Washington National Opera (WNO) formally opened its its 2018-2019 season last Saturday with a beautiful, emotional and intensely moving performance of Verdi’s popular masterpiece, La Traviata at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
This lavishly attractive new co-production finds WNO partnering with the Atlanta Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival Opera, the Seattle Opera and Indiana University. And it’s an eye opener, proving that in this era of pinched budgets, co-productions are often the way to go, with the high costs of expensive new costuming and sets parceled out and shared with a number of partners. That enables all the participants to offer beautiful new sets and costumes to audiences eager to see truly “grand” opera in action.
While La Traviata – loosely translated into English as The Fallen Woman – is well-known to opera fans worldwide, opera newcomers may not be familiar with its plot. So here’s the short version.
La Traviata: The plot
The fallen woman in this opera, Violetta, is our tragic heroine. She’s a beautiful, wealthy courtesan in 19th century Paris who, by the social and social class rules and mores of the time can never transcend her station in life. When she’s unfortunate enough to fall deeply in love with a young and equally enthusiastic minor noble named Alfredo Germont, they both fly off to the country and resolve to get married.
Problem is that Alfredo’s dad, Georgio (“Old Germont”) invokes the rules of society and family values and throws a major wrench into the couple’s plans. Violetta sorrowfully, but nobly, agrees to abide by the “rules” and brutally breaks things off with Alfredo. Oh, and by the way, she’s consumptive and likely has not long to live. Tragedy ensues.
A more emotional, sympathetic La Traviata, courtesy Francesca Zambello
Straightforward, period authentic, this latest WNO edition of La Traviata is reverently but not conventionally helmed by the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello. She makes the familiar story and its progression seem brand new, but adds a few nice touches I haven’t seen before. This is most evident in the characterization of Old Germont, sung in this performance by (baritone) Lucas Meachem.
Dad Germont is typically portrayed as a soulless automaton, just enforcing the rules of polite society no matter how unjust or one-sided they may seem. In this production, the character of Georgio Germont gains in complexity in subtle ways. Perhaps most importantly, by looks and gestures, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with doing his social duty as he comes to realize that this young, fallen woman could actually be the right woman for his impetuous and socially inept son.
But, well, no can do, so the tragedy rolls forward. This touch of complexity in Old Germont’s character pays dividends later on. We see how the inflexible rules of society confront the often strange realities of love and kindness. This slight alteration in Old Germont’s expressiveness and his gradual change of heart makes this story flow more believably. This directorial touch helps make the storytelling in this opera a notable success.
Venera Gimadieva: A powerful yet believable Violetta
What helps just as much if not more are generally strong performances by the opening night cast. Perhaps the strongest – and the showiest – performance is that of soprano Venera Gimadieva who stars in the opera’s title role. Her Violetta somehow seems more real to a 21st century audience than is normally the case. She’s sharp, organized, knows what she wants, and yet remains vulnerable to real love despite the fact she’s gone from rags to riches by selling love to successive wealthy patrons. But we also see early hints from Ms. Gimadieva of the illness that will finally bring her character’s life to a tragic end.
Vocally, Ms. Gimadieva was equally superb, gliding graciously and beautifully through Violetta’s justly famous arias without overdoing them to gain an extra measure of applause. She got that applause anyway on opening night for delivering a memorably moving performance in her role while somehow coming across almost like the girl next door. Well-played and well sung.
Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo
As her most ardent – and errant – suitor, Alfredo, tenor Joshua Guerrero took a little time to warm up vocally on opening night. He was scarcely audible during the lavish dinner party scene that formally opens the opera. Fortunately, he gradually adjusted, gaining impressive vocal power and emotion as the opera’s first half unfolded.
Lucas Meachem is an unusually complex as Georgia, aka “Old Germont”
As the unwanted third wheel in the Violetta-Alfredo relationship, it’s baritone Lucas Meachem. As “Old Germont,” he contributes the often-missing ingredient that makes this WNO production emotionally powerful. Vocally, Mr. Meachem initially comes across as the voice of moral authority. He’s sorry he has to ask what he has to ask of Violetta. But he’s just being a proper father and patriarch enforcing the rules to “protect” his son and his family honor.
As he becomes more acquainted with Violetta, however, his voice develops palpable uncertainty. You can feel his character’s intense inner debate. Yes, he’s doing what’s right by society’s rules. But is it right for this “fallen” yet honest and loving young woman who has now “fallen” for his son and wishes to make amends for her former life?
From both a theatrical and vocal perspective, Mr. Meachem’s Georgio Germont is perhaps the most complex and sympathetic Germont we’ve yet encountered in this opera. And that’s notable, since we’ve seen many, many Traviatas over the years.
Kudos for the WNO dancers and chorus
But there’s plenty more going on in this lush production, all of which adds to its success. The opera’s second half opened with a selection of dances we’ve frequently seen cut from productions. That’s special, because not only is Verdi’s dance music great. It’s also because WNO did something they sometimes don’t do in operatic dance or pantomime scenes. They hired a terrific and polished crew of dancers who made these moments exciting rather than routine.
Hurrah as well for the WNO chorus. These singers were at the top of their game Saturday evening. They added the high society lavishness this opera needs to contrast decadence with tragedy.
This opera has many smaller roles. Current and former alumni of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program, in this case, handled nearly all of them. A special hat tip to soprano Alexandria Shiner as Violetta’s loyal servant Annina. Another to mezzo Deborah Nansteel in the humorous role of Flora Bervoix.
Renato Palumbo and the WNO Orchestra
The WNO Orchestra played well and blended nicely with the singers on opening night. Occasionally, however, conductor Renato Palumbo and his singers found themselves going in slightly different directions in the opera’s first half. Things fortunately settled down after the intermission.
Summing up: This WNO production of La Traviata is one of the richest and most rewarding we’ve seen. Its high quality augurs well for the rest of the company’s 2018-2019 season.
Rating: ***½ (Three and one-half out of 4 stars)
Performances of La Traviata continue at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 21.
For tickets and information:
Visit WNO’s Kennedy Center website by clicking this link. Alternatively, call the Box Office at 202-467-4600.
Ticket prices run between $25 and $300 depending on performance dates and times. Special prices offered on October 14 and 15. Also, extra low ticket prices for the October 19 performance. This one stars members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in the title roles. For seating choices and tickets, click this link.
Note: The company is offering more than the usual number of performances of La Traviata. Therefore, some of the principal singers will alternate with those we enjoyed on opening night.
—Headline Photo: Instant attraction, as Alfredo (tenor Joshua Guerrero) meets Violetta (soprano Venera Gimadieva) in WNO’s new production of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.