Seattle Opera certainly took a risk in presenting Peter Konwitschny’s bold, unorthodox vision of La traviata. With nothing onstage save a chair and a series of red curtains, Konwitschny’s Brechtian production strips away the sentimentality and crinolines typically associated with Verdi’s perennial favourite. Judiciously eliminating some chorus scenes as well as a cabaletta or two, this intermissionless performance unsparingly focuses the work on the kaleidoscopically beautiful and brutal relationship between Violetta and Alfredo. That is not to say that everything in this production works – the appearance of Alfredo’s teenage sister adds little to the score, Violetta’s revolver seems melodramatic and the heavy-handed symbolism of the curtains becomes fussy by the final act – but overall proves an intense, immersive theatrical experience. Combined with generally high musical standards, this surely must count as one of Seattle Opera’s most fascinating productions in recent seasons.
Konwitschny’s pared-down production places the focus firmly on Violetta, and it is to Seattle Opera’s credit that they field two excellent sopranos in the title role. Having made a splash with her London debut in this very production, Corinne Winters is theatrically and vocally the ideal fit for Konwitschny’s vision. An intensely compelling presence, Winters’ Violetta is by turns angry, vulnerable, and gritty. Fascinatingly, she was at her most desperately moving in the first act, showing compassion for Alfredo’s humiliation and physically shielding him from the taunting chorus. Vocally, her rich soprano best suits the spinto outbursts of Act II, though she ably navigated the Act I coloratura with fearless brilliance and a ringing E flat. Best of all, her nuanced shading and projection of the text eliminated the need for the projected supertitles.
Making not only her debut in this production but also in the role, Angel Blue was understandably rather less specific in her portrayal; her statuesque beauty and megawatt smile seemed at odds with Konwitschny’s intensely neurotic Violetta. Despite this, it was a highly committed performance, gaining much from Blue’s innate charisma. She was certainly impressive vocally, her lush soprano displaying an attractive fluttering vibrato and carrying above the orchestra with ease. Despite some early tuning issues, it was a thrill to hear such a massive voice sailing through the technical demands of the role, from an impassioned “Amami, Alfredo” to a surprisingly delicate final act. Greater textual nuance will surely come with more performances in the part, following what must certainly be counted as an exciting role debut.
Alfredo is presented as a bookish geek, completely out of his depth in Violetta’s ruthlessly toxic society. Opposite Corinne Winters, Joshua Dennis was a disarmingly charming presence, acting the unassuming dork with affecting simplicity. Unfortunately, his pleasant tenor sounded nervous and constricted on opening night, often landing just south of the note, though he settled in nicely for an ardently shaded Act III. Zach Borichevsky’s good looks and charismatic presence seemed out of place in Konwitschny’s conception of the role, though his Italianate tenor proved a highlight of the performance. Despite some mightily impressive high notes, it was his Act II aria that made the strongest impact with its textual nuance and fine floated pianissimi.
Most controversially, Konwitschny portrays the elder Germont as a manipulative bully, bringing along his teenage daughter along and eventually slapping her to the ground. Despite this, baritone Weston Hurt brought a fine sense of humanity and even sympathy to the part, his initial machismo giving way to the vulnerability of a father who can connect with neither of his children. Hurt’s firm legato suited the music admirably, despite a few initial tempo issues, and his silken pianissimi in the second verse of his aria were a musical highlight. In contrast, Stephen Powell’s Germont was a more traditional villain, patronizing his children and Violetta with equal superiority. Powell’s powerful baritone certainly makes an impact, especially in concert with Angel Blue’s thrilling soprano in their Act II encounter, although his constant emphatic vocalism became exhausting to hear after a while.
Smaller parts were excellently cast, including Eric Neuville’s wittily urbane Gastone whose elegant tenor certainly bodes well for many Alfredos in the future. Maya Lahyani’s plummy mezzo made an impact as a Mean Girls-esque Flora and seemed to connect particularly movingly with Corinne Winters’ Violetta. Conductor Stefano Ranzani led a propulsive reading of the score that matched nicely with the production’s unflinching inevitability, despite some colourful tuning and a particularly unwieldy string section that made heavy weather of the orchestral preludes. More problematic was Ranzani’s tendency to cover the singers, especially with many of the singers placed so far upstage.
A crowd-pleasing Traviata this may not be, as reflected by the chilly curtain call for the production team, but no doubt a striking theatrical experience that does Seattle Opera’s artistic ambitions proud.
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