Washington National Opera kicked off its season with a new production of La traviata by its Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Updated to the Belle Époque, it features a set with tall glassless windowpanes surrounding the center of stage. The walls, painted white, are backdrops to Violetta’s hospital room, her dining room, country landscape and party scene.  Stunning lighting by Mark McCullough, efficient scene changes and lavish costumes all contributed to a straightforward account of a doomed romance between the courtesan and her young impressionable lover, Alfredo.

Zambello took some artistic liberties by bookending the production with a hospital scene.  The curtain opens during the prelude to show Violetta in hospital with two other patients. Our heroine clutches a letter from Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, as she recalls her life. The opening lines of the Act 1 and 3 are identical, albeit in different keys, so beginning and ending the opera in the same setting makes perfect sense. As Act 1 began, Violetta discarded her hospital gown to reveal a purple long dress for the party, as the beds were carried away and a long dining table brought in with elaborate banquets complete with candles; a dramatic turn. As another departure from convention, Zambello chose to insert an intermission between Scenes 1 and 2 of Act 2; this worked well to break up the story into Violetta and Alfredo’s romance in the first part and its tragic demise in the second.  

Renato Palumbo conducted from memory, maintaining close contact with the orchestra and singers. The prelude was set at a deliberate tempo, and the strings played with such aching beauty that the audience was immediately hushed and carried into the drama. The tempo remained slow throughout the first half, but Palumbo defined the musical contours with clarity and nuance to build the drama. He opened the Act 2 party with a brisk tempo, a nice contrast to drive the story to its heartbreaking conclusion. He took care never to overpower the singers, and his coordination of the orchestra, soloists and chorus was seamless and masterful.

Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, making her Washington debut, was a stunning Violetta.  With her tall slender figure and big expressive eyes, she captured attention by her subtle gestures, a turn of her head, and body postures, reacting to others’ words and actions. Her soprano was clear and penetrating without excessive vibrato. She never forced her voice, nor resorted to flashy displays of coloratura. Gimadieva can sing long lyrical lines with continuous breath, quiet composure and absolute stillness, and her high notes opened with radiant beauty and floated into air above the orchestra with seemingly no effort, always hitting the note in the center without sliding up. Her Italian diction was exemplary, and her death scene was most memorable as her dying wish for Alfredo’s happiness came through with poignancy. There was not a dry eye in the house.  

Her Alfredo, Joshua Guerrero, seemed a little stiff at the beginning but soon warmed up and was a worthy partner to Gimadieva’s consummate Violetta. His warm and ardent voice rang out with thrilling power in Act 2, and his anger and despair in the second half of the opera was expressed in his rich middle voice and squillo in his high notes.  Guerrero is a tenor to watch for his future development.

Lucas Meachem sang Alfredo’s autocratic father with authority as he entered the couple’s country retreat to persuade his son to return to the family. His booming voice dominated, yet showed flexibility and sympathy for the youngsters. His show-stopping “Di Provenza” was sung with dignity mixed with genuine love. His tall, erect stature was an apt characterization, and he completed the strong three leads.

Smaller roles were well sung, with a standout performance by Alexandria Shiner as a warm-voiced Annina, Violetta’s faithful maid, and Arnold Livingston Geis as a clever Gastone, Alfredo’s friend. The men and women of the Washington National Opera Chorus made excellent contributions in singing as well as enacting the exact choreography in the party scenes.

Zambello’s direction was meticulous, ironing out some awkward moments in Act 2, and including a scene with the Baron challenging Alfredo to a duel towards the end of the act.  But the success of this Traviata belonged, first and foremost, to Ms Gimadieva’s unforgettable heroine.