Catching up on Washington National's 'Traviata'
Assorted 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