"What do the France of the 1850s and the United States of the 1920s have in common? It might seem... nothing!" The article, written by director Marta Domingo, goes on to suggest that flappers of the 20s and mid-19th century demi-mondaines were kindred spirits: carefree, carousing, excessive. After seeing the production, which opened LA Opera's 2014–2015 season, an audience member would be forgiven for remaining unconvinced, which is a shame. Los Angeles certainly did well to assemble a star-studded cast for their Traviata which were often vocally dazzling.

Nino Machaidze (Violetta) © Craig Mathew
Nino Machaidze (Violetta)
© Craig Mathew

Soprano Nino Machaidze was a glamorous presence, completely engrossed in Violetta's joy and suffering. She sang the vocally impossible role with an impressive if not always fluid soprano. A broad, powerful instrument, Machaidze used it most potently in Act II where the tessitura seemed more agreeable and her dramatic voice had space to soar through Verdi's expansive lines. She seemed to be slightly uneasy during Act I despite navigating Violetta's coloratura successfully and the lack of potency in her lower register affected her consistency in both the first and final acts. But Machaidze's arias were universally outstanding, although her endurance during the "Sempre Libera" left no doubt that she would not be attempting the interpolated E flat. Still, it was a moving performance, punctuated with spot-on, bright high notes.

Arturo Chacón-Cruz © Craig Mathew
Arturo Chacón-Cruz
© Craig Mathew

Her lover Alfredo was sung by Arturo Chacón-Cruz. His lyric tenor is light but can be significantly ample, filling out the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion admirably. His portrayal was dramatically mannered, but it was an ardent. His "De' miei bollenti spiriti" was beautiful enough, but was followed up with a fine high C in the cabaletta. Chacon-Cruz's chemistry with his leading lady was palpable.

Plácido Domingo (billed as the star of the show) sang the patriarch. It was a fascinating performance. The legendary musician was impassioned and emotive, singing the elder Germont with his unmistakable voice, but it seemed misplaced with the character. Domingo's scene with Machaidze, unquestionably vocally sumptuous from both, was distracting in the busy deportment of Germont. This was not a strong character. Rather, Domingo's Germont seemed apologetic, neither formidable nor imposing in the beginning. Vocally, his solo music required brisk tempi, and he lacked the expansive line he was so famous for. His timbre was often tenorial, spread in the baritone passaggio. It was a performance that never seemed to blend with the drama.

Mrs Domingo's production was in much the same vein. An updated vision of Traviata has certainly been done with more disdain for the libretto, but what was so puzzling about this one was how benign the affair was. Aside from the costumes (some flappers, a lot of sequins), the notable features included Violetta arriving in the first act in a slick automobile, mimed onstage bands (including a grand piano accompaniment to the "Brindisi") and a huge disco ball to accompany the anachronistic ballet.

Plácido Domingo (Germont père) and Nino Machaidze (Violetta) © Craig Mathew
Plácido Domingo (Germont père) and Nino Machaidze (Violetta)
© Craig Mathew

But there was nothing enlightening about the concept, especially when it came to comparing the lavish excesses of the two time periods. The sets of the party scenes were unimpressive, the chorus seemed small, and where was the depravity? As close as we got were a bartender mixing martinis for the "Brindisi" and a card game with comically oversized cards. Along with the non-specific sets of the Act II scene in the country and final act it was hard to understand what the purpose of the updating was, aside from novelty.

Music director James Conlon conducted firmly and preferred sudden fits of expression, often lacking dramatic arch. The orchestra often responded all too willingly to Conlon's direction, producing some unattractive outbursts, but playing tenderly when invited. The chorus seemed underpowered and was occasionally left behind by the pit.

In the end, this was a promising evening that, despite the bells and whistles, didn't give the singers their best chance to portray a dramatically insightful performance. It was a performance that often sparkled (literally). But like the glimmering stars in the set of the last act, it left me wondering, "Why?"