'La Traviata': many parts, no sum

March 15, 1997|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Asterisks in the program booklet best explained the Washington Opera's new production of Verdi's "La Traviata." An asterisk beside a name denotes a debut with the company. All the major players -- the romantic leads on stage, the conductor and the production team -- were making debuts for its opening, Thursday night.

Ensemble counts for much in opera. Good timing relies on familiarity. So even a small company can succeed handsomely when all the parts flow smoothly. For this "Traviata," the debutants knew their own roles but seemed oblivious to one another. We certainly expect more from an opera company aspiring to international prominence.

Ainhoa Arteta, a lovely Basque soprano, sang Violetta, the title character around whom all the action circulates. Arteta developed her character gracefully, with a sparkling smile when her character's health is strong, giving way to the simpler legato style central to the final act, as consumption ends her life. Vocally, she excelled in her lower and mid range, singing with enough volume but little power in reserve.

Tenor Greg Fedderly sang and acted Alfredo as boyish, naive and superficial, which is not a bad portrayal. It turns his doomed love into something of a coming-of-age story. For although he's lost one love, he'll surely find another, and will grow up in the process.

In the opera's central scene, Germont, Alfredo's father, bears down on Violetta with a hypocritical bourgeois respectability. He splits the lovers and hastens her demise. It's one of Verdi's most affecting duets and explores the profound conflict tearing Violetta apart. Christopher Robertson, who has sung at the Washington Opera before, played the father rather stiffly but with considerable vocal strength.

Increasingly, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra plays like a first-rate group. It probably helps orchestral discipline that "Elektra" is also in repertoire, in a production tautly conducted by music director Heinz Fricke, who deserves credit for the orchestra's sound.

For "Traviata," conductor Karl Sollak drew silken tones from the strings and brought forward spiky interjections from the brass and percussion. There were intermittent slack moments, although these should clear up as the run continues.

The big cloud over the entire production is Marta Domingo's static, listless, seemingly under-rehearsed stage direction. The bustling party scenes that open the opera and close act two were clumsily blocked. Motionless for long stretches, the singers seemed unengaged. When they finally moved, it was in obvious, unnatural ways, often at the expense of direct, articulate singing.

In Violetta's aria "Sempre libra," where she sings about life devoted to pleasurable pursuits, Arteta twirled around the stage, making the long sustained notes fade in and out, in a sort of Doppler effect.

Sets and costumes, by Giovanni Agostinucci, enjoyable for their Victorian spacious grandeur, had a newly built, never lived-in look that matched the characterizations on stage.

There are still tickets available for the Washington Opera's "La Traviata," which runs through March 29.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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