When Giuseppe Verdi’s tragic masterpiece of illicit love, personal redemption, and premature death (libretto by Francesco Maria Piave) debuted at La Fenice in 1853, it was set—as required by the Venetian opera house—in Paris and its environs ca. 1700, in the historic era of Richelieu. But Verdi and Piave expressed the wish for their new work to be staged as a realistic production in a contemporary setting—a preference that was not honored until the 1880s.
Opera Philadelphia opens its 2015-16 mainstage season with the American premiere of Scottish director Paul Curran’s award-winning treatment of LA TRAVIATA, which references both the past and current contexts of the story, pairing an opulent 19th-century scenic design with fashions in the style of the late 1950s (set and costume design by Gary McCann; wigs and make-up design by David Zimmerman)—a recent period, but, appropriately, before the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s, the Women’s Liberation Movement, or the publication of Xaviera Hollander’s 1971 memoir The Happy Hooker. The result is a visually stunning intersection of then and now, tradition and modernity, extravagance and conservatism, and a beautifully refreshed rendition that remains true to the didactic message of societal morals and hypocrisy, gender-based double standards, and the need for human compassion.
Based on the novel and play adaptation of La Dame aux camélias (known in English as Camille) by Alexandre Dumas, fils, the three-act opera tells the story of the titular “fallen woman” Violetta Valéry, a Parisian courtesan and lover of the Baron Douphol, who is pursued and won by the young bourgeois provincial Alfredo Germont. Yielding to social intolerance and familial honor, she sacrifices her own happiness to save the reputation of her true love and his sister, ending their affair but reuniting with him on her deathbed (“a cruel end to love”). Performed in Italian with English supertitles, Opera Philadelphia’s production features soprano Lisette Oropesa—a favorite of New York’s Metropolitan Opera—as Violetta, and Grammy Award-winning tenor Alek Shrader as Alfredo (both making their house and role debuts), with local-born baritone Stephen Powell reprising the role of Alfredo’s father Giorgio. They are supported by strong and animated chorus singers (who performed in September in Andy: A Popera, a Fringe Festival collaboration on Pop artist Andy Warhol by Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret), portraying Violetta’s hedonistic circle of Parisian party-goers and attendants (with an especially witty reference to pop music’s “girl groups” of the mid-20th-century).
Conductor Corrado Rovaris and chorus master Elizabeth Braden eloquently capture the varied moods of Verdi’s score, and the outstanding Oropesa brings psychological depth and emotional expressiveness to her sympathetic character, ranging from–and equally masterful at–the ebullient bel canto and decorative coloratura of Act I to the scaled-down drama and poignancy of Act III. Seasoned baritone Powell impresses with his rich, mature voice and commanding stage presence as the angry and scandalized patriarch who comes to respect the dignity of his son’s lover, defends her against Alfredo’s offensive insults, and ultimately feels responsibility, guilt, and repentance for his role in her unhappiness. All of the indulgent luxury, desperate love, and devastating drama are underscored by Paul Hackenmueller’s powerfully evocative lighting and the shifting locales and economic circumstances represented in McCann’s telling set.
The triumphant opening-night-gala performance was recorded for the company’s fifth annual outdoor presentation of “Opera on the Mall”—a free ticketed HD broadcast in Independence National Historical Park on October 16. [Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.] October 2-11, 2015; operaphiladelphia.org.