The Howard Gilman Opera House was filled from the orchestra to the balcony. Every seat sold for New York City Opera’s season opener La Traviata, on the occasion of their reinvention from an opera company in the city to an opera company going out into the city. La Traviata was their first production since their controversial move out of their time-honored Lincoln Center home.

© Carol Rosegg
© Carol Rosegg

While the venue isn’t normally the first item mentioned in an opera review, it is a huge part of New York City Opera’s story this season. Would the company succeed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the first of numerous venues outside of Manhattan?

As a result of this question, the excitement in the opera house was palpable. All unsold seats were offered at a mere $25, having been underwritten by a generous benefactor. Don’t ask me how, but I could tell that the audience wanted New York City’s other opera company to succeed, despite some daunting circumstances (including labor disputes) exacerbated by crushing financial hardships. New York City Opera hedged their bets in selecting a potboiler like Verdi’s La Traviata. And while they didn’t fail, neither did this reviewer find the much-awaited production to be their best showing.

New York City Opera endured untold challenges to get to this chapter in their evolving story. The show had a lot to recommend it – a disciplined orchestra under the baton of conductor Steven White being one of its chief virtues. White was careful not to overpower singers in this new performance space, which wasn’t nearly as lively, acoustically, as their former space, re-engineered expressly for live opera performance in 2009.

While this new production wasn’t substandard, apart from certain elements and selected arias, it didn’t really sparkle either. First, I was surprised to see such a traditional mounting of La Traviata from this company. In the past I admired New York Opera for taking chances, doing shows that its uptown neighbor wouldn’t or couldn’t do or by doing popular shows in fresh ways. The set, designed by Isabella Bywater, was striking, and the costumes (also by Bywater), particularly the grand ball gowns, were magical confections.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy the approach to this Traviata. Few go to La Traviata expecting to see stoicism. The story is sheer melodrama; why not embrace that quality and run with it? While soprano Laquita Mitchell sang the role beautifully and precisely, her emotions were so measured at times, it seemed like she was merely going through the motions of loving and dying, almost as if Violetta had better things to do that afternoon than spend time with us. Instead of making the show and the role unforgettable, she contributed to the flatness of the production. In fairness, some blame for underplaying Violetta should be laid at the feet both of the production’s creator Jonathan Miller, who eschews operatic overacting in his treatments, and of director Elena Araoz, who failed to cull a requisitely evocative performance from Ms. Mitchell.

Araoz did have a deft hand with most of the staging. The gypsy and matador choruses were exquisitely choreographed and a real highlight of Act II. The New York City Opera chorus also deserves mention for carrying off first-rate singing and some lively dancing during all the party scenes.

In contrast to Ms. Mitchell, tenor David Pomeroy in his New York City Opera debut became more tender and emotive as the opera progressed, really warming into his role as her lover Alfredo, and overall delivering an appealing and compelling performance. While Violetta often looked past him in their duets, if she looked at him at all, Pomeroy’s gaze was riveted on the face of the love of his life, which in turn riveted the audience to him.

Baritone Stephen Powell, a veteran New York City Opera performer, turned in an inspired performance as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. His second-act aria “Pura siccome un angelo” was the showstopper of the afternoon.

Interestingly, La Traviata means “The Woman Who Strayed.” While it’s fine that New York City Opera is far from the home many of us knew and enjoyed, it was disappointing that the company strayed from their more courageous brand of opera performance, and opted for a safe but somewhat lackluster Traviata instead.