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Really, she is Violetta

Renee Fleming puts her stamp on the role for a more traditional `La Traviata' at L.A. Opera.

September 08, 2006|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

She sauntered onstage, moving coquettishly among her party guests, pale brown curls trailing onto her neck, sumptuous silk frock billowing. She locked eyes with her beloved.

Moments later, he was gone, along with the other revelers. So were her smiles. She leaned against a doorpost, lost in melancholy, ruminating on her life. Did she dare let love in? Could a glittery courtesan indulge such emotions?

"Follie! Follie!" -- It's crazy! -- she sang in a heated outburst.

And that just about summed up Renee Fleming's eight-year go-round with "La Traviata," the work she was rehearsing one recent afternoon at Los Angeles Opera. Saturday, she will make her company debut in the production at the opening of a three-performance run.

Verdi's 1853 masterpiece, as the waggish British opera enthusiast Denis Forman described it, is "the one where the call-girl is a social embarrassment to her lover's family, so she gives him up, her golden heart is broken and she succumbs to terminal TB." Fleming will play Violetta, "the fallen woman" of the title, opposite Rolando Villazon as her impulsive lover and Renato Bruson as his stern father.

But in 1998, as America's sweetheart soprano prepared to take this prized role at the mighty Metropolitan Opera, she got cold feet. Amid much media ballyhoo, she backed out of her performances in a brand-new Franco Zeffirelli production. (She has since made up the lapse to rave notices.)

Now, she's come full circle, and L.A. Opera is moving heaven and Earth to put La Fleming on its stage as the tragic heroine based on Alexandre Dumas' "La Dame aux Camelias." Indeed, she's so satisfied with her progress in the role that the company is financing a video of the production for her.

The recent rehearsal over, she sat in her dressing room aglow in a deep green organza shawl, her famous face -- the one that has launched a thousand Rolexes -- even more doll-like and beautiful up close than on magazine pages or CD covers.

The Met cancellation?

"Too little time to study the character," she said. "I didn't realize, having just done -- back to back -- three major roles that were new to me, how impossible it would be. Crazy, really."

Not only that. Her marriage had just unraveled. And shortly before, she'd gotten booed at Italy's La Scala, where such fiercely anti-American protests from the Milanese public are par for the opera course.

These days, she arguably owns the role of Violetta. And after successful entreaties by our local company's persuader-in-chief, Placido Domingo, she is obliging her good friend ("such a charmer") -- but not without an enormous outlay of sweeteners.

For starters, her gift bag includes the Decca DVD, unofficially estimated to cost $600,000, keyed to posterity and for streaming over the Internet. And then there's the production -- not, as would normally be the case, the new "Traviata" that the company staged last June but an old one, also directed by Marta Domingo (wife of Placido), that comes with a hefty refurbishing price tag.

Not that Fleming is unused to being catered to. When she sang her first Violetta in 2003 at Houston Grand Opera (where she "wished that critics would stay away, as they do with out-of-town tryouts"), the rest of the cast came to her, in New York, for three weeks of rehearsal before decamping to Texas.

For Fleming, though, the stakes are high.

" 'Traviata' is the capstone of my career," she said. "I needed time to build a personal interpretation. In an iconic role like this, and one so many singers have put their stamp on, you can't just glide into it. You must have something, not necessarily new, but deeply personal to say. I could've gotten it up and running, but not to my standards. I'm experienced enough and serious enough to want better than that -- whether you agree or not with the end result."

At 47, the Pennsylvania-born Fleming has earned praise for her portrayals of such out-of-the-mainstream operatic characters as Handel's Rodelinda and the heroine of Bellini's "Il Pirata." And she acknowledged that it is late for her to be starting up with what is Verdi's equivalent of a Sarah Bernhardt heroine.

"But I'd have been disappointed -- after singing so much unusual rep and other great Mozart and Strauss roles -- to back away," she said. Violetta is "the last thing I have to do in my career."

"The goal is to hit all bases. Traditionally, there are those who sing it fabulously and those who act it fabulously. I want to do both. And I'm so connected to it, emotionally and musically, that sometimes during a performance, I'm not aware that I'm singing. That's a good sign."

What Fleming said she responds to is the ingenious way that Verdi put together his music with the words, the two forged into a seamless drama.

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