Original `Traviata' gets a rare showing

Washington Opera has the 1853 version

OperaReview

May 13, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The history of opera includes a distinguished list of first-night disasters, among them Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Verdi's La Traviata. What went wrong? The audience was predisposed to dislike the new product, or readily influenced by agitators in the crowd. Or the composer didn't get it entirely right the first time. Or the stage might have held some not-ready-for-premiere-time singers.

In the case of Traviata, a little of all the above accounted for the fiasco that occurred on opening night, March 6, 1853, in Venice. Washington National Opera is offering a rare chance to hear this original (more or less) Traviata.

There are not life-changing differences between this version and Verdi's demonstrably improved revision that we know as a masterpiece. But the first score certainly makes for fascinating listening, jolting the ear out of long-accustomed melodic paths here and there.

This isn't a strict, pedantic restoration. The original score has been slightly tweaked. Repeats are eschewed, for example, while the occasional unwritten high note is condoned. And the observers of Violetta's death do not get to sing their original "She's dead" lines.

Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, conductor Giovanni Reggioli shaped the orchestral prelude exquisitely. He gave to the first 16 bars something of the profundity of the prelude to Wagner's Tristan, no small achievement. The initial violin chord seemed to emerge from another realm; each subsequent chord and, especially, pregnant silences between some of the measures spoke volumes about the tragedy to come.

Throughout the opera, Reggioli ensured that the music from the pit - played with considerable sensitivity by the orchestra - enriched the action onstage. Things got off track a few times, but he always guided everyone back safely. His remarkable ability to increase the expressiveness of a phrase with subtle shifts of dynamics and tempo helped make this one of the best conducted Traviata's I've heard in a long time.

Hei-Kyung Hong captured the beauty, vulnerability and pathos of Violetta. The soprano negotiated florid lines smoothly and, above all, brought compelling intensity to her phrasing. John Matz revealed considerable potential as Alfredo. When the tenor didn't push his voice (or take an unwise stab at a high C in Act 2), he sang with warmth and elegance. His acting could use more fire; his sauntering arrival in the last act just won't do.

Aside from lax rhythm and some droopy intonation, baritone Jorge Lagunes made a persuasive Germont. Supporting roles were filled with unusually strong, vivid voices, especially Keri Alkema (Flora) and Valeriano Lanchas (Dr. Grenvil).

Marta Domingo's direction is mostly straightforward and effective, but a hallucinatory addition to the last act looks terribly hokey. Giovanni Agostinucci's 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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.