If there is a good counter-example to Shakespeare's “Sweets grown common lose their delight”, that would be the posterity of La traviata. Every season there are hundreds of performances of this exceptional musical drama in all corners of the world. Opera lovers keep coming in throngs to watch any reincarnation, regardless of whether the singing or the staging are commendable or not. Bringing a fresh look to such a warhorse might seem an indomitable task, but it doesn't mean is shouldn't be attempted. Francesca Zambello's approach to staging great operas of the past has, most of the times, been one that carefully – but not radically – brings the characters and their actions closer to the modern taste. That's exactly what's she is doing in this new mise-en-scène for the Glimmerglass Festival, first seen at the Washington National Opera in 2018 and co-produced with The Atlanta Opera, Seattle Opera and Indiana University.

Amanda Woodbury (Violetta)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

She moves the action from the middle of the 19th century – not necessarily for a good reason – to circa 1900. She sets the whole opera as a flashback, showing, during the prelude, the heroine surrounded by doctors and nurses in a sanatorium for patients dying from tuberculosis. Violetta abruptly removes her hospital white gown to reveal a spectacular dress as soon as the first act begins, and the sanitized white space is turned into a colorful Parisian interior. However, the director plants many premonitory little elements throughout the evening. Grenvil brings his doctor's bag to the first act party. Dead leaves drift in a corner of Violetta's idyllic country house. The hospital bed returns, underlining the illusory nature of “Sempre libera”. There were hints of a danse macabre at Flora's ball.

Some of the directorial decisions were interesting, but others fell flat. The party scenes were full of action and color. (The elegant sets with turning panels were conceived by Peter J Davison and the gorgeous costumes were signed by the Tony Award winner Jess Goldstein). The choreographic components (Andrea Beasom) were well-integrated. Zambello smartly introduced a single intermission between the two scenes of the second act, breaking up the story between the high and low points of Violetta and Alfredo's romance. Nevertheless, this choice exposed the public to the stagehands prosaically moving out the gambling furniture during the plangent, violins driven, entr'acte that opens Act 3. Violetta’s backwards fall with a thud onto her deathbed seemed similarly insensitive. If the birdcage that the old Germont set eyes on was a welcomed symbol, why we needed a hunting dog and a chicken in order to enliven the atmosphere in the second act is unclear.

Amanda Woodbury (Violetta) and Adrian Timpau (Germont)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass is first and foremost a formative environment for vocal students. Despite Traviata featuring only a limited number of cameo roles, just a few singing lines could sometimes be enough to reveal a singer with a potentially great feature. Such was the case here with clear-voiced soprano Bryn Holdsworth (Annina), agile mezzo Lindsay Metzger (Flora Bervoix) and baritone Jonathan Bryan as Baron Douphol (a lesser chance to prove his excellent acting skills than his role as Beaumarchais in Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles the day before).

The principal roles were taken by guest artists, all of whom tackled their musical and acting challenges with great dedication. In the title role, soprano Amanda Woodbury convincingly sang long lines with beautiful pianissimos. Her voice seemed to be better suited for the coloratura demands of the first act than for the more lyrical ones of the second. Woodbury’s “Addio del passato” was poignant and so was her contribution to her duets with the two Germonts. As Germont père, Moldovan baritone Adrian Timpau, a Lindemann Young Artist at the Metropolitan Opera, compensated the lack of a commanding stage presence by clearly conveying his character’s evolution towards remorse and compassion. He sang the famous “Di Provenza il mar” with sensitivity and remarkable legato. Tenor Kang Wang, a Lindemann alumnus himself, had the most impressive instrument, singing a lustrous brindisi and showing a potential for heroic tenor roles in the future. Even if he was better at expressing his ardent love for Violetta than the jealousy and hate it abruptly changed into, his performance was overall inspiring.

Kang Wang (Alfredo) and Amanda Woodbury (Violetta)
© Karli Cadel | The Glimmerglass Festival

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, helmed by Music Director Joseph Colaneri, contoured every musical phrase well, draping the intimate moments in soft colors, without bringing any additional insights to Verdi's more than well-known score.