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Singing Verdi's blues

A stellar cast isn't enough to save L.A. Opera's cautious take on `La Traviata.'

September 11, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Saturday night, Los Angeles Opera opened its 21st season with a stellar-cast performance of Verdi's "La Traviata" featuring Renee Fleming, Rolando Villazon and Renato Bruson. James Conlon made his debut as the company's new music director.

A prestigious record company, Decca, had its high-definition video cameras unobtrusively set up in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to capture the production for DVD. With operatic adulthood around the corner, the company has arrived.

Sort of.

Twenty is an awkward age (the official 20th birthday is Oct. 7). The company has proved a lot. Its budget keeps growing, making it the most bullish anywhere these days. Its ambitions, under the enthusiastic general directorship of Placido Domingo, are thrilling. The company takes chances one minute, then plays it safe the next. It tries to be both responsible and audacious, and it deserves to be cut considerable slack for attempting this difficult balancing act. But it's still young, and it inevitably makes mistakes in its daring and in its caution. Saturday's "Traviata," unfortunately, proved one in the caution column.

A lot of back and forth went into making this evening happen. L.A. Opera had long been wooing Fleming, who had never sung with the company before. Her "Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera three years ago drew admiring comparisons with Maria Callas and made a small fortune for scalpers.

With the bait of a DVD and the promise of a dream cast including Villazon (the world's most exciting young singer) and Dimitri Hvorostovsky (the eloquent, handsome baritone), she was hooked. Then things began to unravel. The garish traditional "Traviata" that Fleming agreed to, the company's 1999 production by Marta Domingo, came back in tatters from use overseas. Last spring, Domingo mounted a new garish one for the company in which she updated the action from 19th century Paris to the roaring '20s.

Fleming, who had appeared in the Met's even more garish traditional Franco Zeffirelli production, said she didn't do '20s. And Hvorostovsky dropped out for unstated reasons.

Emergency fundraising allowed for refurbishing the sets of the earlier production. Meanwhile, Bruson, a distinguished Italian baritone and star of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's famed 1982 "Falstaff," conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, was enticed to return to the Pavilion. He was in his prime as Falstaff; he is now 70 and long past it.

The new old Domingo production is considerably toned down. Giovanni Agostinucci is no longer credited with the sets and costumes, which are less tacky, if still unimaginative. The regal bed in which the consumptive Violetta dies in all her splendor, however, remains.

But what's to be done about Fleming? She is renowned for her beauty -- of voice, of appearance. At 47, she retains both. She gives a lot, yet the audience receives little. Her every move onstage feels overly motivated.

Portraying a courtesan, she wears 19th century gowns with grace, but she seems to hide behind them. She works hard at conveying emotion, sobbing as she writes a note telling her lover she is leaving him. Yet all that her crying accomplishes is the covering up of a clarinet solo, in which Verdi movingly conveys the moment's meaning.

Her singing is complicated. She tries out things. In the aria "Sempre Libera," her salute to the free life, she barks out the sempre and experiments with a bit of jazz phrasing. At the Met, with Valery Gergiev in the pit, it sounded sloppy. Here, she was better. Conlon, completely in command, kept things tighter.

But ultimately, Fleming seemed slave to her glossy beauty of tone and confined by her corsets. What would happen if she put herself in the hands of a powerful director who cut through the plastic?

That Marta Domingo is not that director was evident in Villazon's performance as Violetta's head-strong lover, Alfredo. This young tenor from Mexico City has grown enormously since he first appeared five years ago in the L.A. Opera "Traviata," a fresh face. He is a strikingly compelling actor and a fervent, irresistible singer. Last year, he starred in "Traviata" at the Salzburg Festival with his regular partner, Anna Netrebko. That incandescent performance is now out on DVD, and it shows a tenor totally alive in a sexually charged modern production.

Domingo asked for maybe 30% of that from Villazon. It was a great 30%. But what a waste.

As for Bruson, Alfredo's father who breaks up the romance, he proved sternly effective -- a singer who knows how to mold every phrase in the old Italian manner. His only problem is that his voice is no longer credible.

The chorus sounded as if it needed work. Conlon got excellent playing from the orchestra, but he hasn't yet gotten a handle of the Pavilion's difficult acoustics. With luck, the cameras panned the other way when the dancers appeared.

I fear the worst if L.A. Opera releases this as a DVD, especially with the Salzburg "Traviata" as competition. Does the company really want L.A. to look decades behind old Europe?


`La Traviata'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Sept. 17

Price: $35 to $500

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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