Giuseppe Verdi’s chestnut La Traviata is, at heart, a three-character chamber opera with a classic plot. Alfredo, a callow country boy from Provence falls for a sophisticated but sickly Parisian courtesan (Violetta) who is far outside his social network. Much to her surprise, she falls for him. They set up house in an expensive love nest in the countryside. His outraged father (Giorgio) tracks them down and demands that she give him up for the sake of the family’s honor. She agrees. Just before she dies, they reunite in Paris for a weepy finale.
Although Violetta has a chorus of aristocratic Parisian friends, most of the drama and all of the great music belongs to just those three characters.
Director Keturah Stickann deserves praise for letting the work play itself, which it pretty much can. She set it in Verdi’s time, the 1850s. B.G. FitzGerald provided handsome period costumes. Violetta’s salon and boudoir, and the country house refuge, were suggested by set designer Ron Kadri through sliding panels and a few props — Violetta’s death bed, a divan, a banquet table and so on. Stickann didn’t force a concept on the story. La Traviata is what it is, and generations of opera lovers have made clear that’s plenty good enough.
However, that puts considerable pressure on the three principles to inhabit their characters and make one care about them. Unfortunately, Stickann did not provide enough help, particularly to the young lovers.
Her Violetta (soprano Caitlin Lynch) and Alfredo (tenor Dominic Armstrong) are both relatively young singers who are not natural actors. It took considerable suspension of disbelief to imagine Lynch as a dying consumptive, or to understand why she would have fallen for Armstrong. There was little chemistry between them.
Stickann was not able to coax from Lynch the combination of impetuous passion, sophistication and world-weariness that Violetta must have. As directed, Lynch was too quick to give in to Giorgio’s demand that she abandon Alfredo. She was not sufficiently shocked when Alfredo shamed her by offering to pay for her services to him in the country. And her death occasioned no tears from the audience.
Lynch’s career has been proceeding steadily, including parts at the Metropolitan Opera. She has a strong and attractive soprano voice, easily able to ride over the orchestra. She nailed the high note at the end of her Act One cabaletta, “sempre libera,” in which she sings of the virtues of being free from an entanglement with Alfredo — at least until she changes her mind. She has all the notes for the role; now she needs more experience as an actress — both physical and vocal – and stronger stage direction to make Violetta come alive.
Armstrong is not as far along in his career. Less than a decade ago he was singing as a student at Curtis and Juilliard. Tenors are not easy to find, so Armstrong is worth nurturing. He cuts a nice figure on stage. The middle of his voice is attractive, although he had a harder time than Lynch penetrating the orchestra. He needs more volume. His voice at present lacks Italianate ping on top. He doesn’t yet produce his high notes easily. His drinking song in the first act was wan, nor is he entirely comfortable in his stage skin. As Violetta expired, he didn’t quite know what to do with himself.
Only the veteran Todd Thomas, who 30 years ago was an Apprentice Artist at Chautauqua, made his character credible. He has the gestures of the anguished father Giorgio in his muscle memory. He made both his Act Two confrontations — first with Violetta and then with Alfredo — the most exciting musical and dramatic moments of the evening. “Di Provenza il mar,” in which he pleads with his son to return to Provence, gave particular pleasure. Too often, however, Thomas sings at an unvarying, blunt forte, and more honey in his voice would help.
The few dramatic touches Stickann attempted fell flat. She employed projected images of coffins and a burial procession in a screen at the back of the stage to foreshadow Violetta’s death. She overdid that and it quickly became a cliché. When Alfredo insults Violetta at a party after she abandoned him, he tosses money at her. Stickann had him drop a small purse at her feet, without much flourish. She might have instructed him to hurl paper money or poker chips to really shock the audience.
Her production was, as a result, too polite. Traviata requires a lot more passion to make its full impression.
In addition to Thomas, the other stars of the evening were conductor Steven Osgood and his orchestra. He is in his first season as the general and artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company. The orchestra played well for him. Coordination with the singers was excellent. The strings were lush, the winds mellow. Osgood’s tempos were well-judged and buoyant. He kept things moving.
Osgood recently had a plum assignment leading the world premiere of the opera JFK in Fort Worth, Texas, for which he received good notices. In Osgood, Chautauqua seems to have chosen a winner.
The smaller roles in Traviata don’t have much profile. Indeed, it is clear that Verdi wrote the opera in great haste (two months), given how little time he spent characterizing the people who make up Violetta’s world. Standouts among them were Abigail Rethwisch as Violetta’s maid Annina, Brian James Myer as the Marquis D’Obigny and Hans Tashjian as the comforting but ineffective Dr. Grenvil. All three are members of the valuable Chautauqua Opera Company’s Young Artist program.
A generous and attentive audience filled about two-thirds of the Amphitheater on a cool evening, although quite a few departed before Violetta expired.
Traviata is one of Verdi’s many miraculous creations. But it needs more experienced singers and a stronger director to make its full impact. Let’s see where Lynch and Armstrong are in a decade with stronger direction.
David Rubin is the former dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and an opera fan dating back to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He has reviewed opera at the Met, San Francisco Opera and Glimmerglass for the website cnycafemomus.