The new Traviata at the Lyric Opera is both hyper-traditional and, in moments, saucily modern. In broad strokes, it looks like many another Traviata that has come before: the curtain rises on a gloriously cacophonous scene, full of swirling dresses and suspended light fixtures, and falls, three acts later, on a nearly bare stage with a bed just off-center. Yet there is evidence that director Arin Arbus and set designer Riccardo Hernandez have a twinge of visual ambition that goes past such clichés. The fête at the end of Act II features, rather inexplicably, a giant land mammal (perhaps a bull?) in the form of a skeletal chassis commandeered by a few dancers. Its scale serves to break up the monotony of the crowd, pushing above the horizontality of the party scene. Parsifal, which is playing concurrently at the Lyric, shares this concern with the opera stage’s vertical axis.

© Robert Kusel
© Robert Kusel

I also liked the cross-dressed pair that cavorted alongside in this scene, underlining the seediness of the occasion. The scene turns the bright gold of the opening into a brothel’s disreputable red, which matches Violetta’s now-red dress. Beyond these tidbits, there is not much to say about how this Traviata looks, except to mention a missed opportunity in the first act in which Violetta casts a large shadow against the opposite wall, just off-center from a frame that is meant to suggest a mirror. Alfredo has just declared his love for her, and the crowd has just left, leaving her alone to ponder the new possibilities this opens in her otherwise hedonistic life: “Would a real love be a tragedy for me? What decision are you taking, oh my soul?” Wouldn’t it have been nice if the singer, Marina Rebeka, had taken another step forward so that her shadow appeared right in the mirror against the wall? But it’s clear that the near-framing of her silhouette was only accidental.

Otherwise, Rebeka is a commanding Violetta, playing the role less as a victim and more as a spunky and brilliant young woman who is finally battered down by fate. She sings always with a complete control of long phrases, the breaths flexible and intuitive, the sound bright and well-modulated. As for the men, I warmed up to Joseph Calleja’s Alfredo in the third act, but his stiffness in the second was too obviously theatrical against Rebeka’s svelte naturalness. Both Calleja and Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont have fine voices, but neither manages the seamless marriage of singer and character that Rebeka so effortlessly achieves.

So it is a Traviata, then, to hear if not to watch. There are worse things in the world. Unluckily, the conductor Massimo Zanetti’s fast tempi often lack bite, while his lyrical numbers are often so loose that they do not so much sway as swim. The score could use a little more crackle and a little more of a girdle to keep the flabby ends in place. The indulgence of an Italian melodrama only gains in effect when it is played lean and fleet.

***11