Why, asks the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin, should anyone do La Traviata after Maria Callas? The simple answer is that great dramatic and vocal art demands to be done again and again in each generation, because only thus does it truly live. We can’t leave Hamlet with Booth or Barrymore or Olivier; we have to find new voices for the old lines. So it is with Violetta Valéry, Verdi’s great heroine.
As it happened, my companion at Wednesday’s performance of Opera Philadelphia’s new production of La Traviata had heard Callas sing Violetta in La Scala. I couldn’t resist asking for a comparison of the Violetta before us, Lisette Oropesa, and Callas in her prime. Oropesa (and others) were poorly mic’ed for some reason in the opening party scene of the opera, but when the amplification came on, so did the performance. It wasn’t Callas, my companion allowed, but Oropesa was very fine on her own terms.
I had to agree. Oropesa, a lyric coloratura whose resumé includes eight productions at the Met, has a beautifully unforced voice at every dynamic range (her pianissimo was particularly moving in the great Act II duet with Germont père), and it is rich with expression, too. Where Callas had the drop on everyone was in her ability to convey raw emotion, and Oropesa is less competitive in this area; her physical acting is competent enough, but it lacked the tigerish quality that makes Violetta interesting to us to begin with. Operatic character is different; it can encompass extremes we’d find difficult to accept in other art forms, and La Traviata is exceptionally challenging for precisely this reason. Violetta is a proud courtesan who must somehow be transformed into an angel of renunciation in the course of three acts, including two improbable displacements: she must fall selflessly in love with Alberto Germont, a relationship that is more stipulated than dramatized; and she must agree to surrender him on the altar of bourgeois respectability when Alberto’s father Giorgio demands it of her.
No Violetta can put this across by herself. One must be persuaded by the vocal artistry (and, on a more elemental level, the chemistry) between the lovers, and one must be convinced by the father’s appeal to Violetta’s underlying virtue. Tenor Alek Shrader, like Oropesa making his Opera Philadelphia debut, is simply not Oropesa’s equal, which puts the burden of credibility disproportionately on her. On the other hand, baritone Stephen Powell’s Giorgio was outstanding in his own difficult role, which calls on him to move from a man determined to protect his family’s future from a wicked woman to a father who will embrace her as a “daughter.”
Is all this mere melodrama? Yes, it is, until Verdi gets his hands on it; and melodrama it remains, but of the exalted kind that only opera can achieve—or, put differently, get away with. Director Paul Curran, in his playbill interview, sums up the dramatic premise of Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto as, “Hypocrisy rules!” If that’s the case, though, the opera doesn’t work, and Violetta is simply a fool for throwing her happiness away. Moral perception—virtue itself—depends on the society in which it is embedded, and Violetta, brazen as she is in her defiance of all convention, is nonetheless contained by it, for the courtesan’s role is defined by the ideal of chastity and innocence it opposes. Hypocrisy applies to those who consciously twist the social code to their own purposes, but not to those who live it. Giorgio Germont is moved by Violetta precisely because she acknowledges the primacy of the code and its ideals, and sacrifices herself to them.
The confrontation between Giorgio and Violetta is the production’s highlight, despite some distracting stage business and Violetta’s costume, more becoming a suburban housewife than a reformed coquette. The incongruity stems from Curran’s decision to set the action of the opera in the 1950s, which gives confusing cues in turn to the show’s designer, Gary McCann. La Traviata is quintessentially Second Empire Paris, and it doesn’t carry over to Massapequa
These problems aside, Traviata does stand or fall on its Violetta, and Lisette Oropesa, in her debut In the role, clinched it vocally if not in every dimension. I’d like to see her take it to the Met, with a director giving her the support she needs to develop a fully rounded portrayal. A tip of the cap, too, to Corrado Rovaris and the Opera orchestra, which played with sensitivity and refinement.