Adela Zaharia as Violetta in LA Opera's 2019 production of "La Traviata." (Ken Howard)
The opera “La Traviata” (The Fallen Woman) was written by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave between 1852 and 1853, right after writing two other of his masterpieces, “Rigoletto” and ”Il Trovatore”. It is based on the novel and play “La Dame Aux Camellias” (The Lady with the Camellias) by French author Alexandre Dumas about a courtesan who falls in love and dies of tuberculosis. Originally titled “Violetta” after its heroine, it premiered on March 6, 1853, at the La Fenice opera house in Venice, Italy. It is the most performed opera around the world in the 2018/2019 season.
On Saturday, June 1st, Los Angeles Opera brought back its art deco inspired production “La Traviata” by Marta Domingo for the third time since its premiere in 2006, with an exciting young cast of singers, two of which have won the famous voice competition Operalia, founded by maestro Placido Domingo in 1993.
The LA Opera orchestra under the baton of maestro James Conlon started things off with Verdi’s gorgeous prelude, as the audience watched a brief reenactment by actors of Violetta’s background story. As a young ingénue arrival to the big city, she is seduced into the “escort” lifestyle, first by working-class men and then by the wealthy.
As the scrim curtain rises, the audience is transported to the roaring 1920s, where the story is set during prohibition. On opening night the role of Violetta was portrayed by the beautiful and talented Romanian soprano Adela Zaharia who took first place at the Operalia in 2017. Her elegant character is always the life of the party, but deep down she wants to find true love, which just might be the young and impetuous Alfredo, played by the dashing tenor Rame Lahaj. Born in Istog, Kosovo, he was also a prize winner in the Operalia competition but in 2016.
Act I takes place at a lavish party thrown by Violetta for her “protector”, the older Baron and attended by the crème de la crème of the party circuit. There, she is introduced to Alfredo by his best friend Gastone, played by the excellent tenor Alok Kumbar, and then the attraction sparks fly. Everyone is in a good mood as they all sing the very famous aria “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici/Let’s drink from the joyful cups” headed by Alfredo and Violetta and made even more powerful, lyrical and exciting by the always stupendous LA Opera Chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon.
If you were to ask for a dream couple to play the doomed lovers, these two attractive artists would be it. Zaharia posses a gorgeous, powerful, crystalline voice that allows her to take on the difficult coloratura segments as well make her pianissimos sound like she is singing next to you. Her first aria from Act I, “È strano! … Ah, fors’ è lui/Ah, perhaps he is the one” was out of this world, especially during the aria’s cabaletta, “Sempre libera/forever free”. The handsome Lahaj matched her singing in quality of voice, power, and acting performance. His outstanding rendition of the famous aria of Act II, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti – Il giovanile ardore/The youthful ardor of my ebullient spirits” was full of passion and purity of voice. At this point in the story, they both have moved into Violetta’s country house and are deeply in love.
Hidden behind all this bliss is the fact that Violetta is dying of tuberculosis, so when Alfredo’s father, Germont, played by Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy comes to beg her to leave Alfredo for the sake of the family name, it becomes a poignant moment. In this scene we get a hint of her illness by the frailty projected by Zaharia in voice and appearance, for one of the most touching sequences in the opera. Billy’s duet and aria with her are outstanding, as they showcase his powerful voice and ability to hold notes for what it seemed like an eternity. In the end, she agrees to do as he wishes.
When Violetta returns to the party circuit in the arm of her older suitor the Baron, Alfredo follows her to a decadent party at her friend Flora’s house. In this opulent scene, Marta Domingo pulls all the stops in conveying the roaring 20’s imagery. There is a gold painted, bikini-clad girl dance group led by a muscular bare-chested “toreador” to a jazz band playing in a loft, high in the background. In this indulgent atmosphere, Alfredo wins big gambling but ends up insulting Violetta in front of all of her friends by throwing the money at her feet in a jealous rage. When she subsequently faints, he is shamed by the crowd, including his own father. Regretting the incident, he begs her forgiveness on bended knees.
Other notable contributions by the cast include mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell as Flora, Violetta’s friend; soprano Erica Petrocelli Annina as the maid; baritone Juan Carlos Heredia as the Marchese and Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Barone, Violetta’s older lover.
In the end, the tuberculosis has taken its toll on Violetta as she lies dying in bed penniless. Alfredo rushes to her side but it’s too late, she dies in his arms. A sad ending, but is another outstanding production by Los Angeles Opera.