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September 24, 2008

Catching up on Washington National's 'Traviata'

Washington National Opera TraviataAssorted distractions kept me from getting back to the subject of La traviata, Washington National Opera's season-opening work at the Kennedy Center. Here goes: It's only been four years since the company offered this production, directed by Marta Domingo. It remains a servicable, mostly traditional approach, but I think the company might have provided more in the way of freshness this time.

That said, there are still some wonderful things here. They start with Elizabeth Futral's portrayal of Violetta. I can't remember the last time I got misty-eyed at a performance of this work, but Futral got to me in the final act at last Sunday's matinee. She inhabited the role so fully that the hopeless struggle between Violetta's consumption and all-consuming desire for love registered with remarkable force. The soprano's voice has hardened somewhat over the years, but remains a basically attractive and vibrant instrument. Although it took Futral a while to warm up on Sunday, her individuality asserted itself in the second verse of Sempre libera, delivered with an edge of grit, even anger, revealing the character's internal conflict; it sounded like Violetta was forcing herself to believe in her always-free philosophy. The remaining acts found Futral's singing remarkably sensitive and incisive, the work of a substantial artist.

Arturo Chacon-Cruz, as Alfredo, showed promise. The tenor shaped phrases stylishly, but I wish his tone had more variety and evenness. Lado Ataneli sounded like an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness Verdi baritone early on, with a warm, smoothly produced timbre. Although he lost vocal steam later on, his singing still hit the mark. Among those in the supporting roles, Margaret Thompson (Flora) and Yingxi Zhang (Gastone) made strong impressions -- appealing voices, lots of attention to text and inflection.

Dan Ettinger's conductor was a consistent plus. The way he drew the very first string notes of the Prelude commanded attention; the sound seemed to start in another world and gradually materialize in ours. I loved Ettinger's willingness to bend tempos, the way conductors routinely used to do in the good old days (as evidenced, at least, by vintage recordings). This was a classy, personal and affecting interpretation of the indelible score.

Marta Domingo's direction sticks to the tried and true, except for a (presumably) dream sequence, complete with dry-ice fog, in the last act. That sequence somehow seems less hokey than it did four years ago. If you'll pardon the obnoxious self-quoting, what I said about Giovanni Agostinucci's designs back then still holds: the "traditional costumes do the trick, but his scenery is too greeting-card pretty in Act 1, too boutique-hotel-lobby in the first scene of Act 2, too screamingly bordello in the second."

PHOTO (Elizabeth Futral, Arturo Chacon-Cruz): Courtesy of Washington National Opera

Posted by Tim Smith at 2:18 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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