The world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s nineteenth opera, La Traviata, was a disaster. Violetta, a consumptive courtesan, was sung by an aging, overweight soprano and her lover, Alfredo, and his proud father, Germont, were sung by mediocre singers. But the real controversy lay in Verdi’s continued experimentation with and bending of the longstanding “rules” of opera as drama. Unlike almost every one of its predecessors and contemporaries, La Traviata is set in the present and focuses on the individuality of the characters. The conventional showpieces, grand ensembles and choruses, and dramatic diversions characteristic of primo ottocento and French grand operas are replaced by soliloquies, monologues, confessions, and confrontations. Since 1853, the controversial edges have been filed down transforming this intimate opera about society’s destructive infiltration of personal relationships into lavish, vapid displays of opulence or grotesque “reinventions” that concentrate on symbolism and themes. It seemed odd and safe when New York City Opera decided to inaugurate its controversial departure from Lincoln Center with a benign staple of the repertory such as La Traviata, but Jonathan Miller’s production, originally conceived for Glimmerglass, provided just the sort of intimacy, realism, and honesty that the company needs to distinguish itself not only from the Metropolitan Opera but from its own history.
Miller’s production strips away 169 years of excess and provides us with the skeleton of the opera, focusing on the contrast between the public and the scandalous, and the private and brutally complex. Public spaces – Violetta’s house, Flora’s party – become spaces for private contemplation or confrontations, always with the feeling that everyone is listening, gossiping, and judging. This is most effective during Violetta and Alfredo’s Act I duet “Un dì felice” and their Act II confrontation “Invitato a qui seguirmi,” when we see the other guests in the interior rooms, eavesdropping on their confessions of love or running to witness the painful spectacle of accusation. Using the public to highlight intimacy of the private relationships around which the opera revolves, the production creates an intimacy and a spontaneity that is amplified by the close quarters of the Howard Gilman Opera House. Every vocal nuance, facial expression, and gesture reads as if the audience were watching it on a wide movie screen, forcing the audience’s engagement.
Laquita Mitchell excelled in vividly painting Violetta’s most intimate and introspective moments. The “E strano…Ah, fors’e lui!” monologue was full of giddy anticipation and nervous longing and thankfully devoid of conventional indulgences. This was a Violetta who was truly tired of the façade of public life and craved a personal relationship. Throughout the evening, Mitchell found nuance and individual expression in Violetta’s quietest moments – in her soliloquies, her interactions with Annina, reading Germont’s letter, and giving Alfredo a picture of herself for him to remember her by. Unfortunately, Mitchell faltered when the role and music called for extroversion. Her voice disappears above a high A, sabotaging many of Violetta’s most passionate and tear filled moments.
Alfredo was sung by the young Canadian tenor David Pomeroy who certainly fits into City Opera’s commitment to hiring young singers who look like the characters they are portraying. Pomeroy had all the boyish charm and naïveté of Alfredo in the first and second acts, but lacked the unpredictable passion and rage in the third act. During one of La Traviata’s most horrific moments – when Alfredo insults Violetta in front of the entire party and throws money at her – Pomeroy sang with a sweet, limpid tone, indifferently tossing the paper bills at her. Perhaps he needs more time to develop a temperament, but just because Alfredo is not Otello does not mean he should be sung like Don Ottavio.
City Opera veteran Stephen Powell as Giorgio Germont was the vocal star of the evening, displaying true Verdian style, a seasoned awareness of the stage, and keen psychological insight. Whereas Mitchell and Pomeroy had their moments that fit nicely into the intimacy of the production, Powell was committed and present throughout the evening.
Jennifer Tiller stood out as a sassy but devoted Annina. Karen Mushegain in her City Opera debut sang an impish, ditzy Flora, but found depth and pathos in the role in the second act, comforting Violetta after Alfredo’s insult. It was another one of the delicate touches of this production by City Opera that forced the audience to narrow their focus away from the expectations of opera on a grand and impersonal scale to something more intimate and more human.