Last night I saw my first performance at Opera Bastille, La Traviata. While I am a huge Verdi fan, this venerable warhorse of repertoire didn’t really do that much for me. I’ve seen it once before, on video, with Renee Fleming in the title role. I walked out of Opera Bastille declaring this La Traviata as one of the best opera performances I have ever seen.
The story of the doomed love of consumptive courtesan Violetta and her provincial lover Alfredo never felt terribly immediate or interesting to me. It also seems to be the kind of opera that all divas have to sing, even when they may not be suited for it. The story seems to be as old as the hills, being adapted from a play, which was adapted from a novel and has been remade countless times. Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge is essentially La Traviata. I guess my rambling point here is that while I expected a quality experience, I didn’t expect to love La Traviata as much as I did.
I had never heard of (or heard!) Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho before this performance. At the opening of the opera I was didn’t really like her voice. It had a harshness that was unappealing. By the end of Act 1, the edge was gone and I was optimistic for the next part of her performance. Chatting with my companions at the first interval, we all agreed that her voice probably was not warm enough. Or perhaps it was jitters (it was opening night). It is also possible the harsh tone of her singing was a directorial choice as the character is intended to be flippant and dismissive of Alfredo. But if that was a conscious choice, it was a bad one.
I was really excited for Act II and the entrance of Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Garmont, Alfredo’s father. Dmitri is a silver fox of a singer. He was probably born with the wrong voice as he is a baritone with the charisma and presence of a dramatic tenor. He’s amazing as Eugene Onegin. He was great as Pere Garmont and actually brought some believable pathos to the role. Essentially, Pere Garmont is kind of a jerk who asks Violetta to break with Alfredo, despite the fact that they actually do really love each other. Pere Garmont is all worried that his daughter will not make a good marriage and will be stained by association because of that trampy Violetta. Violetta actually agrees to the break, which is supposed to make us think that she is virtuous (heart of gold anyone?). I actually bought the sentiment portrayed here and really felt bad for Violetta.
Well, really, we all know what happens next. Violetta breaks with Alfredo. Alfredo throws money at her and calls her a whore. Violetta suffers mostly alone, with Alfredo arriving at the final moment so she can die in his arms. Pere Garmont feels bad. No one is happy. The end! Applause! But I actually cared! The singing and acting were so good that I cared. Not enough to cry, but enough to really enjoy the opera. All the leads were very strong and balanced. Although I haven’t said much about him, Francesco Meli as Alfredo was really great also.
There was only one glaring problem with the production, and oh man, it could not be unseen. Violetta’s maid was played by a singer in blackface. Yes, 2014 and a white woman was painted up, badly I might add, to be black. The set had a copy of Manet’s Olympia hanging over Violetta’s bed.
Apparently Violetta was Olympia and her maid Annina was the black maid from the painting. OK, fine, I guess. But really, Opera Bastille, you couldn’t find a black mezzo-soprano to sing this part? Pathetic and shameful.
Honestly, I’m not sure how Cornelia Oncioiu, who sang Annina could really walk on the stage like that. I couldn’t. But then maybe she was just a big fan of Zwarte Piet.
La Traviata with this cast is at Bastille Opera through October. The production debuted earlier this year.