Violetta was dancing at the Moulin Rouge on Friday night. The venue was actually Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, where the set for a semi-staged version of Verdi’s “La Traviata” — in which Violetta was a Parisian showgirl in the Roaring Twenties — was dominated by a large cutout of the Eiffel Tower, ringed marquee-style in white lights. It was an effective if inadvertent link between the pops fare that dominates most of the Filene Center’s classical offerings — this Eiffel Tower wouldn’t have looked out of place at many NSO@Wolf Trap shows — and this eminently serious, wholehearted and nicely executed performance.
The evening marked a welcome return of large-scale opera to the Filene Center stage, and we should all hope that it’s here to stay.
The production united the Wolf Trap Opera Company (which usually has to contend with the limitations of its smaller but amiable theater at the Barns), the National Symphony Orchestra and a capable production team. (The NSO was elegantly conducted by Grant Gershon, who made the challenges of coordinating this kind of semi-staging — in which conductor, orchestra and chorus are positioned behind the singers — look easy.)
The director, Jose Maria Condemi, demonstrated that you can update and freshen an opera without doing anything to ruffle the feathers of traditionalists. Yes, the action was moved to the 1920s, but costuming Violetta in Act I as a kind of French Sally Bowles, in sequins and ostrich feathers and kohl-rimmed eyes (Anke Lupes created clothes and sets), simply gave a slightly more contemporary spin on a timeless story.
(The first production of “La Traviata” had to be moved in the other direction: The censors wouldn’t allow Verdi to present a modern-day drama about a courtesan, so everyone was dressed in 18th-century garb.)
And the staging was so stripped down — with a few pieces of furniture, overhead projections and a handful of principals trying to evoke the supposedly crowded parties — that the piece was only loosely anchored to a historical time in any case. “Projections,” in opera, often connote multimedia spectacle, but Aaron Rhyne’s were relatively modest: shots of the underbelly of the Eiffel Tower or the City of Light by night for the Paris scenes and a lavender field for the country idyll. Indeed, the production could have used a little more high-tech, at least in the amplification department; poor Benjamin Bliss, who sang Alfredo, was several times shortchanged by a mike that sometimes cut in a few measures after it was supposed to.
Here is where you might expect me to launch into a diatribe against amplification, and I certainly did hate it. It was too loud, and it was not well applied (the Washington Chorus, which sang well, was sometimes inaudible behind the soloists). But I reluctantly bow to its inevitability in this particular kind of outdoor amphitheater, and at least it gives young singers confidence that they will be heard and removes some of the audible anxiety from their delivery.
Certainly, I enjoyed the performance quite a lot. The Wolf Trap Opera got a lovely young cast together for this one, with the added bonus of presenting singers who are age-appropriate for their roles. Bliss was light and ardent as Alfredo; Nicholas Pallesen, whom I last heard in Castleton’s “Trittico” in 2010, made an even better impression this time around with a sturdy, solid Germont. Courtney Johnson was a warm Annina; Brian Vu, a debonair Douphol; and Nicholas Brownlee, an evocative presence as the doctor. Only Harry Greenleaf, as Baron Douphol, sounded a little strained.
The anticipatory buzz of this production centered on Corinne Winters, partly because she is local (from Frederick) and familiar (she sang Anne Trulove in Wolf Trap Opera’s “The Rake’s Progress” last summer at the Barns), but mainly because she had a resounding success in this role this year at the English National Opera and appears to be on the brink of a big career.
She didn’t disappoint. Her voice is full and round, with comfortable high notes but also a darkness that suggests she might move into a slightly more dramatic repertory with time. And she has a gamine intensity that made for a magnetic performance. Her voice is still on the light side for the outpourings of Act II, which calls for the biggest singing of the night, but that’s a quibble, particularly given her desperate, searing performance of her duet with Pallesen/Germont.
She’s coming to the Virginia Opera next spring as Micaela in “Carmen” and to the Washington National Opera (we don’t know in what, yet) in the fall of 2014. You might want to mark your calendars.