Opulent, bountiful "La Traviata" is movie-making on a grand scale. Director Franco Zeffirelli has transformed Giuseppe Verdi's opera into a cinematic spectacle starring diminutive diva Teresa Stratas -- a delicate cameo in a rococo frame.
While opera, especially on the screen, tends toward overacting rather than great acting, Stratas is subtle and sublime -- a new Garbo for a new "Camille." She's 44 but looks 24, an ephemeral nymph wandering through Zeffirelli's palatial sets.
What you do expect from opera is sound that shakes the rafters and the bones of your spine with mad emotion and a plot straight out of a cheap romantic novel. And it's all delivered here in a soundtrack featuring the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus under James Levine, with Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil in the male leads opposite Stratas.
She plays the consumptive courtesan, Violetta, a Parisian beauty who falls in love with merchant's son Alfredo Germont (Domingo). Their love affair ends when Alfredo's moralistic father (MacNeil) persuades her to leave his son, thereby saving his dear daughter from losing her fiance, who's appalled by Alfredo's scandalous affair.
It's a plot fit for "Ryans' Hope," something Zeffirelli clearly realizes. After all, he did make both "Romeo and Juliet" and "Endless Love," and here hopes to reach both audiences.
"I'm not out to preach to the already converted," he says. "I want this picture to be accepted by the masses."
To that aim, he has included the subtitles for the Italian lyrics so that non-buffs can follow the plot. Viewers will no doubt have mixed feelings about these distracting little gizmos running across this gorgeous work. And sometimes, when Stratas is going for a high note, it's a letdown to know that all she was singing was "Dinner is served."
Though Zeffirelli has cut out some of Verdi's flourishes, he makes up for it in his cinematic extravagances -- gem-encrusted gowns, confetti cascades, sparkling gypsies, camellias and matadors. It's a carnival that fades solemnly into Violetta's tubercular demise as she sings "Oh, How I've Changed" from her chaise longue for the heartbreaking finale.
Bravo, magnifico, "La Traviata." LA TRAVIATA -- At the West End Circle.