|Michael Wade Lee woos Anya Matanovic at a pivotal moment of La Traviata.|
Somewhere, I suppose, the curtain is always rising on La Traviata - and no wonder, as it's blessed with one of Verdi's most ravishing scores, which aligns superbly with a remarkably resonant libretto (derived by Francesco Maria Piave from La Dame aux camélias). Boston Lyric Opera claims to have held off from staging it for a decade (rare indeed among opera companies!), so hopes ran high for its return to Boston last weekend (it plays through Sunday at the Schubert).
The opera's fans may be surprised to discover, however, that BLO has eschewed the opulence that became the default mode for Traviata after the wild success of Franco Zeffirelli's over-the-top stagings at the Met. Instead, the BLO team offers a thoughtfully rendered, more delicately scaled vision of Verdi's decadent demi-monde and its doomed Violetta, who sacrifices everything for love not once, but twice.
Indeed, perhaps the director and designer have over-thought things a bit (more on that later); but BLO has certainly been lucky in the rising star they've found to play Verdi's fallen woman. Luminous soprano Anya Matanovic is blessed with a voice that more than matches her entrancing beauty: perhaps a bit hushed at the bottom, it nevertheless blooms to a glowing bouquet of color as it rises. What's more, Matanovic has the effortless emotional presence of a born actress - and endows her Violetta with not only a passionate inner life but a convincing emotional integrity (which is a good thing, as she contemplates each and every romantic decision at length, and with utter candor).
So Matanovic's introspective Violetta is exquisite - the rub, I'm afraid, lies in the object of her affection. Much of the power of La Traviata's plot depends on the emotional mystique of its hero, the callow Alfredo, whose love must be noble enough to draw Violetta from her life of freedom and ease, yet also conceal a vengefully immature streak. And certainly tenor Michael Wade Lee is an appealing singer - with a pleasing glint of bel canto sun in his upper register - who seemed to commit to the role more and more as the opera progressed; still, at this stage of his career he simply lacks the passionate complexity required to credibly spark the unfolding disaster of the plot.
The production sometimes struggled with that gap, but elsewhere the news was better: baritone Weston Hurt proved eloquent - both vocally and emotionally - as Alfredo's father, and there were fine minor turns from local stalwarts David Kravitz and David Cushing (along with the always-reliable BLO chorus). And I generally liked the grand-but-tender sounds I heard guest conductor Arthur Fagen teasing from the orchestra down in the pit. Together with Matanovic, these talents might have been enough to put this Traviata over the top.
But alas, I sometimes found myself distracted from their achievement by the direction and set. Designer Julia Noulin-Mérat is clearly a talent to watch, and has a way with strong, simple statements. The glitter of the Act I party, for instance, was conveyed with a single, looming painting (in the designer's most striking coup, it disappeared from its frame after Violetta's ruin). Likewise the heroine's country idyll was suggested by a solitary tree, the gaming table of the third act was a vast circle that all but spanned the stage, and the dressing gown of the heroine's final hours became an impossibly long shroud (above). Together, these strokes suggested an incipient loneliness that's actually quite appropriate to poor Violetta's plight - although very far from the gaudy stylings of the likes of Zeffirelli.
Still, I sometimes found myself musing more on the mise-en-scène than the story. It didn't help that director Chas Rader-Shieber threw a strangely listless opening party, and then conjured a third-act debauch that played like out-takes from Eyes Wide Shut (which all but undid, for a time, the production's contemplative tone). Oh, well - Matanovic shone like a beacon through all of this, and even connected with Wade Lee in a deep way during her heartbreaking farewell. A great Traviata is more than a showcase for its leading lady, of course - but honestly, sometimes that feels like enough.