Monday, May 8, 2023

Verdi's Compassionate Human Drama

Seattle Opera’s season-closing production La Traviata is one of those rare occasions where everything comes together – vocally, dramatically, visually, musically – resulting in an overwhelmingly moving and emotionally devastating theatrical and musical experience.


As soon as conductor Carlo Montanaro gave the downbeat for the Prelude to Act I – a masterpiece in string writing - I sensed that we were in for a special afternoon. The musicians of the Seattle Symphony played with great sensitivity and feeling, although the great theme of the Prelude – the melody from Act II when the heroine sings, “Amami Alfredo, Amami quant’io t’amo” – could have been played a little less aggressively, and with more of a glow in the sound. Behind the scrim, we already see what we know to be the end of the opera, a dying Violetta, being cared for in a hospital ward. At the end of the Prelude, the set changed in an instant to the party scene in Violetta’s house, conducted with great energy and a palpable sense of urgency. Indeed, throughout the opera, he managed not only an effective “accompaniment”, but created a curtain of sound that underscored the stream of drama unfolding on stage, and propelled the action with logic and a sense of flow from one emotion, one scene, to the next, until the devastating end of the opera.


There were many reasons why this production worked so effectively. The excellence of the young and wonderful voices and the absolutely convincing portrayals of the characters. Even secondary characters, especially Annina and Doctor Grenvil, were beautifully sung, and with palpable compassion. Mane Galoyan’s vocal pyrotechnics, especially her thrilling Sempre libera, certainly sent the first of many chills up my spine. 


But vocal pyrotechnics would have been meaningless if the leading soprano did not rise to the dramatic demands of the subsequent. This Ms. Galoyan did, in spades, as she was equally affecting in showing Violetta rising to her ultimate sacrifice in Act II, as well as in Act III, when she succumbs to her tragic fate. Tenor Duke Kim cuts a handsome figure on the stage, and he was utterly convincing in Alfredo’s evolution, from the innocent and guileless youth who lost his heart to Violetta in Act I, to the bitter and angry man at the end of Act II, and to the rather more worldly, but remorseful figure in Act III. Joo Won Kang’s Giorgio Germont gave this Verdi father figure great dignity, effectively using his remarkable voice to convey harshness (in Act II) and fatherly tenderness (in Act III) and convincingly portrays his evolution from the heartless request he made in Act II (perhaps a commentary of Verdi’s contemporary society on “fallen women”?) to the truly compassionate father figure – in this case to Violetta - Verdi is so effective in creating. In the words of that wise and insightful commentator on opera, the late Father Owen Lee, “The scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father – the courtesan’s generous response to the honest plea of bourgeois respectability – is the great heart of Verdi’s opera.” I would add that Giorgio Germont’s final embrace of Violetta, as a father, is even more overflowing with the composer’s compassion for the neglected in his time. 


All three characters grow in different ways during the opera, and the three principals convincingly convey this gradual change through the drama. There was real chemistry between not only the star-crossed lovers, but between the older Germont and the woman yearning for his fatherly love. 


After the devasting encounter between Alfredo and Violetta at the end of Act II, the action froze, literally, the scrim comes down, and the music of the Prelude to Act III commenced, a highly effective way to put in sharp relief the strong emotions of Act II and the death-haunted atmosphere of Act III. As the Prelude was being played, the scene gradually changed from the bright colours of the party to the bare walls of a hospital ward. Ms. Galoyan’s delivery as she read aloud the lines from Alfredo’s father, who finally understands the depth of her sacrifice, was highly effective and emotionally searing. At the final moments of the opera, before falling to her death, Violetta rose and, with the almost-too-bright white light on her stark white hospital gown, almost like a transfiguration, stretches out her arm and delivers the lines, “Ah, ma io ritorno a viver! Oh gioia!”, one couldn’t help but felt that power of the miracle that Verdi has created, a miracle of compassion and love. 


I can say without hesitation that this was the most dramatically and musically convincing La Traviata I have seen in a long time. How privileged we were to be able to experience this remarkable recreation of Verdi’s supremely moving commentary on, again in the words of Father Owen Lee, “that half-acknowledged society below respectable society”.



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