Generally speaking, opera companies see themselves as having two functions: offering new or unusual work, and offering productions of the classics to please or appease their core audience. The Washington National Opera has taken to opening its seasons with a “bucket list” opera in a serviceable production: This year, it’s “La Traviata,” one of Verdi’s most beloved and beautiful operas, in a new production by Francesca Zambello. How popular is this approach? This is a co-production not only with Zambello’s Glimmerglass Festival but also with the Atlanta Opera, the Seattle Opera and Indiana University.
What the audience in the Kennedy Center Opera House saw Saturday night was a perfectly fine “Traviata” that checked all the boxes. And that was just the problem: Too often, in this production, it felt as though boxes were being checked. “Traviata,” based on the historical figure of Marie Duplessis, is the story of a greathearted courtesan, dying of consumption, and her one chance at true love, and it had its premiere within a few years of Duplessis’s death. But it’s so often done and the characters are so familiar that the hurdles to a director became, here, too evident. Shall we narrate this chronologically, or tell it as a flashback? (Here, flashback.) Will Alfredo, Violetta’s lover, be callow or urbane? (Here: callow.) Will Germont, his father, be kind of a jerk or a decent but ignorant bumpkin? (Here, bumpkin.)
Adding to the sense of checklisting was Zambello’s use of certain musical passages as incidental music to play during stage business. Having furniture moved around in full sight of the audience during the beautiful entr’acte that opens Act III was a mood killer. It also demonstrated the overall attitude of a production that touched bases without delving into a deeper understanding of the work and its characters, and therefore without making them fully believable or deeply moving. But it was traditional enough to meet with a semblance of approval, not to say relief, from the opening-night audience.
A brilliant musical performance could pull any straightforward production of “Traviata” into tear-jerking territory, but here, too, everything felt merely adequate, and not quite seamless. The three leads were all making their WNO debuts, and there’s no question that they had decent enough voices. Lucas Meachem, the Germont, had the most imposing instrument, a stentorian baritone, and if he was wooden onstage, it was at least in keeping with his awkward character. As his son, the ardent Alfredo, tenor Joshua Guerrero was also almost too much in character: His opening-night nerves spilled into the first scene so much that he kept bursting in too early, leading him to stumble and repeat a line in the famous “Brindisi”; he did calm down in the subsequent acts and sang ardently, if not especially memorably, reminding me a little less of a romantic hero than of the comedian Fred Armisen.
The title role of Violetta is said to require three voices: a coloratura for the high-wire first act, a lyric for the second act and an even fuller sound for the final death scene. Venera Gimadieva, a Russian soprano, has a lot of coloratura operas on her schedule, past and present, but from the evidence of Saturday she does better in slightly heavier, more lyrical terrain. All three singers had notable pitch issues, but hers were worst in the first act, when she tossed up notes that landed slightly spread and slightly above where they were supposed to be; she was more affecting and sang much better in the great second-act duet with Germont père.
As for the conducting, it was sometimes hard to tell if Renato Palumbo’s racing tempos were an effort to keep up with the singers or a factor in their own tendency to rush, but the result was more edge-of-the-seat than is ideal in performance. Palumbo also favored an odd, brusque kind of phrasing, with emphasis on the staccati, which, to me, gave the whole thing a choppy feel and was distracting, though I’d be interested to hear his reasons for doing it. Among the smaller roles, Domingo-Cafritz alumna Deborah Nansteel stood out for me as a bubbly, capricious Flora, more lively than many of the rest.
That said, if you haven’t seen “La Traviata,” this is a perfectly fine one to start with, although it may not inflame you with the kind of love of the piece that some of us have developed. WNO does offer two casts for this production, and the second one, on paper, looks tempting, with Jacqueline Echols, another Domingo-Cafritz alumna, as Violetta; Mario Chang as Alfredo; and Michael Chioldi as Germont. If I had to pick one to go to, it would be that one.
“La Traviata” continues through Oct. 21.