On the same weekend when the Metropolitan Opera broadcast live its minimalistic modern "La Traviata" in selected movie theatres, the Dallas Opera House offered "La Traviata" with stunning visual splendor that testified the power of essential qualities of an opera -- "live" and "lively".
The stage director Bliss Hebert and the production designer Allen Charles Klein strove to present sumptuous Parisian courtesan live styles in a period setting. Strong dominant colors were used to indicate the variant moods throughout the drama.
In the first act, gilded laureates were shimmering on top of doors, forming a half circle for a ballroom. A three-part panel was used to define a private quarter for the heroine, Violetta Valery.
The panel was tinted in azure blue with scenes of decaying Italian gardens. Together with overall black colors (including the purplish indigo dress of Violetta), the overly joyful party scenes carried an undertone of suppressive despair.
In the first half of the second act, an outdoor patio with grape vines not only invigorated the color palettes but also restored Violetta’s health, at least temporarily. Here in the serene French countryside, the heroine had been living happily with Alfredo Germont, whom she met at the party and with whom she fell in love.
Then after being persuaded to leave her lover by Alfredo’s father, the second half of this act was staged the most sumptuous design: a costume party in a high-Victorian setting with a grand chandelier that would surely push "GCB"s (currently a show on ABC based in Dallas) to re-check its own ballroom settings.
In spite of the bleeding red color that shrouded the twisted scenes that ended in a duel, Violetta was dressed in pure white. She was now "with" Baron Douphol, yet her purity would not survive in the decadent city life.
In the last act we moved a few months forward. Violetta was in her barely-furnished bedroom. The room was so dimly lit that everything seemed to have fallen into darkness before the true tragedy.
A few minutiae showed the innovation behind the production of this opera staple. The overture, which is normally played before the curtain is lifted, was instead played against the scene in which Violetta was slowly walking in her bedchamber toward the light. Her stretched arms resonated well with the music regarding her internal and physical struggles.
Also in the last act when the merriment of Mardi Gras was revealed outside Violetta’s bedroom, the fireworks momentarily brightened up her surroundings. The colorful lighting enabled the scene to be perceived half way between reality and fantasy, thus further exposing the heroine’s mental vulnerability against a sea of seemingly happiness, which she had never enjoyed.
As in all other productions, the leading soprano either makes or kills the show. The Greek soprano, Myrtò Papatanasiu, in her American debut, successfully portrayed a sophisticated courtesan that lived through conflicts, sacrifice and illness. Her svelte body helped convince audience of Violetta’s illness. (She died of tuberculosis.)
Most of all, her acting was natural on stage. In the last act, her grieving was not only tangible but also contagious. Although she does not possess the rich, strong lower register as Maria Callas, she sang many reflective arias with beautiful lines and tenderness. James Valenti was a tall handsome Alfredo. He has a supple voice that matched well with Ms. Papatansasiu. The lack of absolute volume in his voice did not have much impact for his role, although his tendency to bounce back and forth in big strides made Alfredo somewhat immature.
Laurent Naouri, as Gergio Germont, is a persuasive deep baritone. His stiff acting, however, was not as graceful as his voice.
The conductor Marco Guidarini accompanied the singers and the chorus with nimble responses. A few violin solos at the death scenes rendered convincing trajectory of the heroine’s final fall, right after her rise under the light.
Yet, the most impressive was Verdi and the opera itself. It is filled with beautiful melodies, unforgettable arias, duets and chorus. Mostly amazingly, after one and a half centuries later, the story can still be read with astounding modern acuteness.
Violetta’s fall is a societal tragedy of treating people as what she is, instead of who she is. In spite of societal prejudice and intolerance, Verdi put the following lines in his opera: Love is the pulse of Universe, mysterious, painful, and yet, wonderful.
"La Traviata" runs through April 29 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street in Dallas. For info or tickets call 214-443-1000 or visit http://www.attpac.org/