If Jonathan Miller's new production of La traviata proves anything, it's that if push comes to shove, a 'fallen woman' can stand on her own.
Glimmerglass Opera's 2009 season-opening performance of the Verdi masterpiece was visually appealing and, on the whole, musically satisfying. The production will most likely be remembered, however, for the powerful combination of acting and singing by Mary Dunleavy as the tragic heroine, Violetta – a performance so outstanding, in fact, few other cast members were able to keep up with her.
The story, adapted from the 1852 play La dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexander Dumas, details the ill-fated romance between a fashionable but terminally ill courtesan, Violetta, and a proud but naive young gentleman, Alfredo. It's a familiar yet timeless plot that inspired several films (most notably the 1936 version of Camille) as well as Broadway theater. What makes Dumas' story such fertile fodder for good drama is the depth of character of this emotionally complex heroine – whom Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave proceed to unravel in masterful fashion over the course three acts.
The role of Violetta demands, to use the composer's own words, 'a woman in the prime of her strength.' Enter Ms. Dunleavy – a seasoned performer who has sung this role nearly 50 times before and who is making her Glimmerglass Opera debut in this production. This is a role, of course, that even the most casual of opera-goers are familiar with, and there's hardly a shortage of memorable Violettas – either past or present.
Dunleavy's Violetta is, with all due apologies to opera directors everywhere, entirely of her own creation. In the first-act she plays her courtesan character not as an attention-grabbing, seductive or flamboyant exhibitionist, but as one who appears somewhat pensive and reflective – as if having contemplated the meaning of her empty existence long before Alfredo entered her life. Even in the brilliant 'Sempre libera degg'io', the aria where Violetta vows to return to a life of pleasure rather than test the waters of true love, Dunleavy plays her character as one who remains unsure and confused rather than defiant.
Vocally, Dunleavy possesses a large and powerful soprano that at once fills the hall yet at the same time impresses the listener with its ease of delivery. Several times during her second-act duet with Giorgio Germont, I began to ponder just how far down Rt. 80 her voice might carry. Still, it was Dunleavy's softer passages that impressed me the most, such as the poignant moment in 'Dite all giovine', where she comes to terms with her sacrifice, and during the delicate, whisper-like pianissimos in the tender 'Addio del passato', when not a pin-drop could be heard within the packed theater. Her extended death scene in Act III, where she sings the entire act while reclining in bed, was sublime.
As the love-struck Alfredo, Ryan MacPherson was in fine form throughout Act I both in voice and character. His smooth transition from a reluctant party guest in Violetta's drawing room to a bold toastmaster of the Brindisi (drinking song) was well paced, and his sincerity when baring his soul to Violetta in the duet 'Si ridesta in ciel l'aura' appeared genuine and heartfelt.
MacPherson's good vocal form continued early into the second-act with a handsome lyric tenor and smooth legato in his 'De' miei bollenti spiriti' (which he sung while reclining on a sofa chair), but by the end of the aria the tenor's pitch had begun heading south – a sign of fatigue – and there was a loss of some degree of strength and stamina in his performance from that point forward. While MacPherson appeared angry enough in the 'O mio rimorso!' that followed, he could not maintain sufficient vocal intensity to arrive comfortably at the end of that aria (curiously, he opted to gamble on a high C at the end of the number – which was unnecessary and, in this case, ill-advised). Nevertheless, MacPherson's acting throughout the evening was exemplary: He was, in fact, the only member of the cast whose acting forged a successful complement to that of Dunleavy.
Malcolm MacKenzie, as Giorgio Germont, possesses a strong and resonant baritone that initially sagged under-pitch in his low-to-mid register, as if insufficiently warmed up. By his second-act signature aria ('Di Provenza il mar'), however, MacKenzie overcame his earlier vocal difficulties and delivered both verses rather well. Still, MacKenzie's acting was consistently unconvincing: He looked far too young to be Alfredo's father (the makeup and beard had little effect), and lacked the depth of character, emotional weight and authority in his duet with Violetta for me to believe that the reluctant heroine would buy what he's selling. MacKenzie stage presence is rather wooden when he's not singing, and he seems unsure of where to place his hands, which invariably wind up clinging to his lapels.
Among the smaller roles, Glimmerglass Young American Artist Rebecca Jo Loeb as Violetta's maid, Annina, sang in a sturdy and pleasant mezzo-soprano, while fellow-artist Liza Forrester as Violetta's courtesan friend, Flora, delivered a commanding stage presence during the colourfully energetic dance scenes in Act II. David Kravitz, as Dr. Grenvil, played his small role in Act III to perfection with a resonant baritone that hints of a bright future with lengthier roles.
The staple of Isabella Bywater's scenic design is a two-piece set that interlocks at different angles to form the interior walls of Violetta's richly furnished apartment (Act I), yet is versatile enough to morph convincingly into the more subdued country abode outside of Paris (Act II, Scene 1) and then Flora's extravagant Parisian mansion (Act II, scene 2). Bywater, who in this production provided the costume design as well, opted for colorful mid-eighteenth century period costumes that I thought resembled those designed by Walter Plunkett in Gone with the Wind. Ironically, these costumes place the action of this production precisely where Verdi had initially intended it to be – which was largely responsible for the opera's dismal failure when it premiered in 1853. Terry John Bates' lively choreography of the chorus of masked gypsies and matadors in Act II provided a colorful and welcome divertissement to the production.
Director Jonathan Miller added some nice touches in the first-act, such as in the Waltz and duet scene ('Un di felice, eterea'), where merry couples are seen waltzing behind the set's three tall doors in the background as Alfredo professes his love for Violetta in the foreground. Less successful was Miller's staging of Violetta's deathbed scene, where Dunleavy must sing while reclining in her bed as MacPherson gazes squarely into her eyes. With neither singer in a position to watch the conductor, the inevitable ensemble problems arose in the opera's signature duet, 'Parigi, o cara', as MacPherson nearly missed his entrance at the beginning of the duet and the couple's phrasing of Verdi's tender melodic lines grew increasingly tentative.
Robert Wierzel's skillful lighting effects are especially evident during Act III. Here, rays of light emanating from the bedroom window that surround Violetta's bed increase in intensity, ever so slowly, with the arrival of daybreak. Moreover, the light protruding from the bedroom's partially opened door is designed to cast a long shadow of any character who enters the room, and do so directly over the supine figure of Violetta.
With the exception of some intonation problems in the brass section during Act III, the Glimmerglass Opera orchestra played well throughout the evening, executing Verdi's tricky ornaments with precision and responding alertly to conductor Mikhail Agrest quickly shifting tempos. I especially enjoyed Agrest's gentle touch at the opening of the Prelude to Act I as he conducted choral-style (hands and fingers only), drawing a gentle whisper from the eight stands of violins that first sound the reminiscence motif representing Violetta's impending death.
The Glimmerglass Chorus was in strong voice throughout the Brindisi and the gypsy and matador scenes, although they have a tendency to rush slightly ahead of Agrest's beat.
By David Abrams
Photo credits: Richard Termine
Performances continue until 25 August 2009. More information at www.glimmerglass.org.