'Traviata': It's a Start

Season Opener Is Solid, if Uninspired

Elizabeth Futral, as Violetta, acquitted herself very well.
Elizabeth Futral, as Violetta, acquitted herself very well. (By Karin Cooper)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008; Page C01

The Washington National Opera's opening night got the job done. It was a perfectly satisfying evening of opera, and -- theoretically, at least -- a fine introduction for anyone in the crowd of 15,000 or so watching the live simulcast at Nationals Park who was not already familiar with the art form.

The Kennedy Center performance had all the ingredients, starting and ending with Verdi's "La Traviata" -- an opera which, if you get out of its way, has the power to pack a considerable wallop.

A romantic opera with beautiful music? Check. A traditional period staging? Check. Singers who were credible physically (no proverbial fat ladies here) and cast in roles that more or less were right for their voices? Check. A black-tie opening-night crowd spangled with evening gowns and luminaries? Check.

Perhaps it is beside the point to say that for all of its solidity, it wasn't a performance for the ages. It was perfectly adequate, and that is already saying something.

It represented a 180-degree turn from last year's opening production of "La Bohème," which reset the opera and re-imagined the characters in a 20th-century milieu. By contrast, Marta Domingo's direction Saturday night was so by-the-book as to seem phoned in at times. Violetta and Alfredo finish their first romantic encounter and the chorus marches on, stands, sings and walks out. To heck with any attempt at dramatic verisimilitude, like making it actually look as if they are guests at a party. Or perhaps in 19th-century Paris, all the guests always moved in a group and left en masse.

But Domingo (wife of the company's general director, Plácido Domingo) is a better choice to direct "Traviata" than she would be for some other operas, since "Traviata" works pretty well if you leave it alone. The opera was shocking in its day for just how realistic it was: In 1853, the idea of an opera set in the present and focused on a courtesan was so radical that the censors required the first production to be given in 18th-century costume.

Today, of course, its setting has become historic with the passage of time, but the piece still stands apart from the kind of costume opera that was more usual even in Verdi's own output (take the Gypsies and Spanish nobles of "Il Trovatore," which he was writing at the same time). "Traviata" requires little suspension of disbelief and is quite moving if done even halfway well; on Saturday, none of Domingo's ideas had the power to interfere. Her only notable interpretive twists came in the final act, which she opened with Violetta receiving last rites, her canopy bed framed between two robed altar boys, giving the whole thing the sense of an altar. At a later point, a top-hatted dream figure in a cape appeared out of the Carnival in a sinister burst of fog, picked up Violetta and carried her around stage before returning her to her bed. Whatever.

For the rest, there were gorgeous gowns and lovely people and reasonable sets by Giovanni Agostinucci (though Violetta and Alfredo's country retreat in Act 2 had an anachronistic touch of art deco in its look and palette).

There was also singing that ranged from barely adequate to quite good. Arturo Chacón-Cruz, as Alfredo, represented, alas, the former. He was the second-cast Rodolfo in last year's "Bohème," and though I did not have a chance to hear him then, the state of his voice now -- plus the crowded list of roles in his biography in the program -- combined to suggest that this was a young voice being pushed way too far, too fast, already bearing the audible traces of overwork.

For the whole first act, his sound was pale and unfocused; in the second act, in which he sang not only his aria but the cabaletta that is usually omitted in performance, he hammered his way into some slightly firmer sounds that gave a hint of a pleasant instrument, and of the reason he might have gotten hired in the first place.

Lado Ataneli, who played his father, Germont, almost sounds like the perfect Verdi baritone; I have been rooting for him to get past the "almost" part for some time, but to my ear he has yet to fully connect. His handicaps Saturday were a weak upper register and an inability to sing any softer than a mezzo-forte, which meant he tended to drown out the other principals, whose voices were on the small side for their roles, in ensembles. He has a nice firm sound in the lower middle of his voice, and notable breath support, though oddly his phrasing is a little wooden; when a rare singer comes along who is able to sustain long phrases on a single breath, one might expect those phrases to be a little less choppy.

Violetta, the title role, is both fiendish and grateful; if a soprano is able to get through it, she is almost guaranteed a smashing success. Elizabeth Futral was able to get through it, very respectably, and deservedly bathed in much applause. The role is said to require three voice types: a coloratura soprano to negotiate the high-wire singing in the first act; a lyric soprano for the emotional outpourings of the second act; and an even fuller, lirico-spinto sound for the death scene. Futral does not have three voice types; she has a thin ribbon of a voice that wove through the first act with agility, and then used that voice adroitly and marshaled resources that weren't immediately apparent with some forceful chest singing in the tortured drama of her last solo aria. Her sound is not always full, and she can be a little careless about details here and there, but overall, she acquitted herself with honor.

The small roles were generally well cast with a bevy of singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (and the strong mezzo Margaret Thompson, who had a lot of fun as Flora).

Dan Ettinger, in the pit, appeared to be trying to make a mark on the music in his company debut. He was forceful to the point of near-vulgarity (Verdi's oompah accompaniments can represent a slippery slope in this regard) and nearly willful in some of his phrasings, with a reliance on exaggerated silences at unexpected moments. But he also showed energy and verve, and on the whole managed -- in the spirit of the evening -- to get the message across.

Performances continue Sept. 18, 21, 24, 27 and 30 and Oct. 2 and 5.

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