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In Review > North America

La Traviata

WASHINGTON, DC
Washington National Opera
10/6/18

In Review WNO Traviata lg 119
Joshua Guerrero and Venera Gimadieva in WNO’s Traviata
© Scott Suchman/WNO

THERE WAS SOMETHING more uncomfortable than usual about seeing a woman humiliated by a hectoring man at the end of Act II in Verdi’s La Traviata when, on the same night, across town from the Kennedy Center Opera House, protesters and politicians were caught up in the battle over a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault. That coincidental contemporary relevance was not the only thing adding an extra edge to Washington National Opera’s season-opening production of La Traviata on October 6. The staging, by WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello, crackled with a dramatic urgency that felt freshly connected to our world, even if the look remained essentially traditional. (The opera’s setting was updated to about 1900.)

The action began during the Prelude, with a scene in a hospital ward where, as Violetta was being tended to in one bed, a patient expired in another. Violetta then ripped off her sick clothes to reveal a party dress, the better to jump into a flashback as the scene seamlessly shifted to her stylish home. There was another such transition during the Prelude to Act III (the sole intermission was taken after the first scene of Act II), which showed departing guests from Flora’s soirée pausing to glance back, not all that sympathetically, at the hospital ward that re-materialized in their wake. 

Zambello’s direction enlivened both of the opera’s parties. The first turned into quite a frolic, during which Violetta and Alfredo did a kind of table dance for the brindisi. The second was given abundant color: in a neat visual connective, the hapless lovers again ended up atop a table. Some of the directorial touches proved clumsy, as when Alfredo twice had to push part of a wall away so he could step out to sing his contributions to “Sempre libera,” and when Violetta’s backward collapse onto her bed resulted in pratfall-like bounces that audibly tickled some audience members. Peter J. Davison’s set, exquisitely lit by Mark McCullough, achieved rich atmosphere without fuss, particularly for the country scene. (A recurring scrim painted with a giant image of a woman’s eyes looked as if it came from another production entirely.)

The cast proved uniformly impressive as actors, and were almost as well-matched as singers. Venera Gimadieva took a stellar turn as Violetta, generating considerable pathos. With a velvety timbre, pinpoint articulation and text-driven phrasing, the soprano served the music with distinction. Her “Addio, del passato” was sung with particular eloquence of line and tenderness of tone. As Alfredo, Joshua Guerrero began tentatively (he went off-track rhythmically in the first few measures of “Libiamo”) and had a few intonation slips later on in the evening. But Guerrero’s agreeable tone and communicative way with a phrase paid off, especially in the finale, where his singing had poetic intensity. Lucas Meachem looked every inch the implacable Germont, rudely studying a birdcage as Violetta poured out her soul to him, then gradually revealed the gentleman’s potential for empathy. All the while, Meachem summoned considerable tonal warmth and expressive depth, especially in midrange. Where many a baritone propels through “Di Provenza” at one volume setting, Meachem provided affecting dynamic contrasts in the second verse. 

Sturdy voices and lots of personality came from Alexandria Shiner as Annina (here a constant shadow for Violetta), Michael Hewitt as the Baron and, in particular, Deborah Nansteel as Flora. The chorus did vibrant work. So did the orchestra, which, other than occasionally anemic-sounding violins, responded firmly and tellingly to the insightful conducting of Renato Palumbo, whose flair for rubato and willingness to linger over a phrase or a silence ensured an involving performance. —Tim Smith



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