There was much to admire in the Los Angeles Opera’s 2014-15 season-opening production of Verdi’s “La Traviata’ – the expert conducting of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra by its music director James Conlon; Arturo Chacon-Cruz’ silky-smooth lyric tenor used so effectively in an ardent portrayal of Alfredo Germont; a strong cast in the supporting roles; and brilliant work by the Los Angeles Opera chorus.
However, I suspect the evening will be long remembered for the stunning artistry of Nino Machaidze in the lead role and Placido Domingo in the baritone role of Giorgio Germont.
[Below: Violetta (Nino Machaidze), resting on an elegant divan after a coughing spell; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews image, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The two artists, who triumphed earlier in the year as Thaïs and Athanael in Massenet’s “Thaïs”, returned in a revival of Marta Domingo’s saucy production of Verdi’s opera, which time-shifts the opera to the Roaring 20s “Paris”, though a Paris steeped in an abundance of American celebrity culture.
The Domingo Vocal Pathway
Placido Domingo performed for his Los Angeles audience yet another of the baritone parts that he has be has added to his record-breaking list of opera roles performed.
His long, internationally-celebrated career now can be seen as consisting of three phases, the several decades in which he was first, principally, a spinto tenor in the heroic spinto and dramatic roles of Italian and French opera (his accomplishments in the heroic French tenor repertory deserve study on its own), then his transformation into a Wagnerian heldentenor, singing such jugendlicher roles as Siegmund and Parsifal.
Now comfortably into his early 70s, Domingo has retired his tenor repertory entirely and has established a new career in a select number of baritone roles. Verdi baritone roles tend to lie high in the baritone range, and, more often than not, spinto and dramatic tenors, such as Domingo, have power in the lower part of their range, giving a heroic tenor voice a baritonal sound.
When Domingo first announced his intention to explore the baritone repertory, having studied the carefully planned transformation of heroic tenor Ramon Vinay to dramatic baritone in the mid-20th century, I suspect that even Domingo’s strongest admirers underestimated just how impressive Domingo’s re-orientation of his repertory would be.
[Below: Placido Domingo as the Elder Germont; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
I remarked, after hearing his Athanaël in May [Placido Domingo, Nino Machaidze In a Triumphant “Thaïs” – Los Angeles Opera, May 17, 2014] that Domingo’s legato was as youthful sounding as if he were a lyric baritone forty years younger.
A singer can disguise vocal disrepair for a while in certain character roles with some huffing and puffing, perhaps in a baritone buffo role, but with the major Verdi baritone roles there is no such place to hide.
This is what made Domingo’s decision to assay the Verdi baritone roles so risky, and his total success in performing them, with their long stretches of legato singing, so remarkable. That he has chosen Verdi roles of dignity and gravitas – Simon, the Doge of Genoa; Francesco, the Doge of Venice; Giorgio Germont, the bourgeois paterfamilias from Provence – makes its own contribution to the drama’s theatricality.
I believe the Domingo vocal pathway will be studied by many artists who are now pursuing successful operatic careers, and may become the model for other first rank tenors who wish to stay in good voice and good health, like Domingo, performing on the operatic stage into their 70s.
[Below: Alfredo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz, center, above) offers his winnings for the night as payment for his time as a “kept man” as the Baron Douphol (Daniel Mobbs, below left) and the Marquis D’Obigny (Daniel Armstrong, lower right) look on with horror; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Marta Domingo’s “Thoroughly Modern” Flapper Era Concept
I’ve reported on Marta Domingo’s production previously, but its revival for her husband and lifetime partner should be considered afresh.
Verdi’s original intent was for “Traviata” to have a contemporary feel, and not be a staged costume drama. However, that which would have seemed contemporary in the early 1850s, is a costume drama in the 21st century.
“Traviata” is about the impact of a fatal but lingering disease on a life of pleasure, and of a love lost and regained too late. Verdi presents the drama in four scenes – two are parties, one that ends hopefully, one that ends in despair. Between the parties is a scene in which an affair is abruptly terminated because of a family’s intervention.
Plot exposition occurs during both parties (at the first party, Alfredo’s first direct encounters with Violetta and their mutual confirmation in their interest in a long-term relationship; at the second – Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta, followed by a challenge to her new protector to a duel).
In the final scene, the opera ends with Violetta’s death from tuberculosis.
Of course, the 1920s were closer in time to the 1850s than the early 21st century, but I really do believe that Marta Domingo’s flashy sets are fully consistent with the opera’s intended spirit. After a pantomime during the sombre prelude that hints at the assignations that occur beneath city streetlights, Machaidze’s Violetta steps out of her elegant conveyance, a 1929 Chrysler limousine for her “million dollar photograph” before her grand entrance in the first of the parties.
[Violetta (Nino Machaidze arrives at her first act party by means of her 1929 Chrysler limousine; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The second act (in this production, the second act, scene one) takes place in Violetta’s tree-lined country retreat.
Here, the chief homage to the early 20th century were in Violetta’s fashions, Machaidze reminding one of a Hollywood star of the silent screen.
[Giorgio Germont (Placido Domingo, left) visits Violetta (Nino Machaidze, right), pleading for her to break off her affair with his son; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The other party scene (in Act III, or, in this production, the second scene of the second act) Verdi has written music so specific that it challenges the stage director and choreographer to figure out how to keep things fresh. A group of gypsy women do a dance and tell fortunes, then another dance occurs where several male dancers pretend to perform a bullfight.
Marta Domingo departs from the letter of Verdi’s instructions, but not their spirit. The gypsy women – here transformed into ancient Egyptian figures that remind one of D. H. Chiparus’ bronze and ivory figurines – become slinky dancers in glitzy costumes. The bullfighting affairs give way to a brilliant display of balletic power (Kitty McNamee is the choreographer.)
Throughout this entertainment part of the scene, a five-man New Orleans style jazz combo pantomimes on an art deco balcony.
[Below: A solo dancer (Louis A. Williams, Jr.) leaps high above a group of “gypsy women”; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The final scene, in which Violetta is reunited with her lover Alfredo and the Elder Germont, is often staged emphasizing the illusions of the mind during a person’s last hours.
Violetta is outdoors beneath a bright starry sky. Meteorologically most improbable, but mood-setting theatrically, snow flurries fall from the cloudless sky while holiday revellers briefly appear in a cloud of fog towards the back of stage right.
Soon Machaidze’s Violetta is joined by Chacon-Cruz’ Alfredo and Domingo’s Giorgio Germont, for Violetta’s death. (On principal, I counsel operagoers not to try to sort out the historical accuracy of opera plots or opera productions, but, in fact, mortality from tuberculosis was still very high before the 1930s.)
The trio of principals was then joined by the Doctor Grenvil of Solomon Howard and the faithful servant Annina of Vanessa Becerra for the beautiful final quintet, almost always cut in the 20th century, and almost never cut in the 21st. At its conclusion, VIoletta dies.
Other cast members included Peabody Southwell as Flora Bervoix, Daniel Mobbs as the Baron Douphol, Daniel Armstrong as the Marquis D’Obigny, Brenton Ryan as Gastone, Omar Crook as the servant Giuseppe, James Martin Schaefer as a Messenger and Mark Kelley as Flora’s Servant. Alan Burrett was lighting designer, Grant Gershon was chorus director. and Lisa Kable-Blanchard the stage manager for the revival.
I reommend this production with this cast of principals enthusiastically.
No opera-goer who has the chance to get a ticket to see Domingo’s Germont should fail to do so, especially when he is paired with a Violetta of such profound artistiry as Machaidze, and the likable Alfredo of Arturo Chacon-Cruz, a tenor whom Domingo, himself, has mentored.
For futher discussion of Placido Domingo, “La Traviata” and other operatic subjects, see: Facebook “Opera Warhorses”