Overtones: New Vision Of La Traviata Comes To 'Great Performances'

Upcoming production shows what a video opera can be when everything works just right.

[Editor's Note: "Overtones" is a weekly opinion column by Washington Post classical-music critic emeritus Joe McLellan.]

Contributing Editor Joe McLellan writes:

Subtlety is not one of the first things we look for in opera, an art that usually makes its impact with broad, sweeping gestures, larger-than-life characters and situations and emotions that get out of control.

Within these limitations, La traviata is the subtlest of Giuseppe Verdi's operas — or at least it can be, in the right kind of production.

It is a domestic tragedy, different in style from such epic works as Il trovatore, La forza del destino or Otello because its heroine dies a natural death. And it is pervaded by a kind of intimacy that makes only fleeting appearances in Verdi's more heroic works.

These special qualities, which bring Verdi unusually close to the verismo style of Giacomo Puccini, are scrupulously cultivated in "La Traviata From Paris," which PBS will telecast on Aug. 27 in its "Great Performances" series.

Although attending a live performance is the strongest kind of operatic experience, the visual shortcomings of many people with great voices mean that a video recording is often less satisfying than the audio-only version.

Video Helped The Opera Star

But this production shows how well La traviata can work in a video format when it has visually convincing singers, expert staging and thoughtfully directed camera work. In this La traviata, the lead singers share the spotlight with director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and the city of Paris, where it was filmed on location.

Taking La traviata out of the opera house gives it a freedom of movement, a depth of perspective and a visual vitality that are simply not available on a proscenium stage. The opera's essential intimacy makes close-up shots superbly effective, and a variety of cinematic devices gives the story thematic reverberations that would not work in a live performance — the use of mirrors in Act I, for example; the shadings of color during the death scene, in which black-and-white moments of despair alternate with technicolor flashes of hope. A long sequence at the beginning of the last act focuses on hands: the dying heroine, her maid and her doctor. And the hands tell the story.

Opera lovers have long felt a special connection between La traviata and La bohème, in which the heroine also dies of tuberculosis in her lover's arms. In this La traviata, the similarity is made explicit in the first scene, in which the tenor and soprano begin to fall in love.

In La bohème, Mimi drops her room key and her hand touches Rodolfo's while they are both on the floor. In "La Traviata From Paris," the heroine drops an earring (probably on purpose) and the hands touch on the floor, under a table, where the characters have their first kiss.

This stage business is not in the libretto, but it is thematically appropriate and helps the story, which is told throughout with grace and clarity. It also foreshadows the focus on hands, with a completely different emotional impact, in the death scene.

Cast To A T

The cast of La traviata lists nine solo roles, but only three are usually important: Violetta (Russian soprano Eteri Gvazava), a courtesan who falls in love but leaves her lover out of respect for his family and dies (exquisitely) of tuberculosis; Alfredo (tenor José Cura), the lover who makes her think, briefly, that love and happiness may be possible for her; and his father (baritone Rolando Panerai), who breaks up their liaison, then repents — too late.

All three principal singers look and sound right for their roles. Cura and Panerai are already well known; Gvazava, a native of Siberia, is a discovery, and judging by her performance in this production, a major one. Young and visually appealing, she is an excellent actress as well as a superbly gifted singer. She has been singing professionally in Europe for a few years but has not yet made her U.S. debut. Her first solo CD, a collection of Russian songs, is in preparation. The soundtrack of "La Traviata From Paris" is available on the Teldec label.

An idea of the depth of this production can be gained from watching Alain Gabriel in the role of Baron Douphol, Violetta's former lover. The Baron has no music of any great value, though he is a key element in the plot. In the cast, his name is listed seventh, after two of Violetta's servants.

But in this La traviata, his body language, aided by close-ups that can make an arched eyebrow speak volumes, makes key situations and attitudes brilliantly clear. Observe closely, for example, the Act I drinking song, "Libiamo," in which the musical focus is on Violetta and Alfredo, but the camera catches the Baron's gestures in a way that makes the brilliant music an integral part of the plot rather than a pretty ornament pasted on it.

This La traviata, one of the most satisfying opera performances I have seen in years, shows what a video opera production can do when everything works just right.