Review: A New Verdian Golden Age? – Poplavskaya, Giordano in Elegant Agostinucci “Traviata”- Los Angeles Opera, May 21, 2009

This reviewer in recent weeks has expressed a high degree of optimism about the state of contemporary Verdi singing both in the United States and Europe. (The fact that most of the best singers are engaged by the major companies of both Europe and the United States means that if one observes excellent performances in either Europe or North America, it is almost certain that the same will be true for the major companies of the other continent as well.)

I have had reservations about what I regard as a marked decrease in fidelity to Verdi’s intentions in stage productions, with the lowest standards in this area observed in Europe, although, of course, there are exceptions to this observation, some noted on this website, on both continents. I will have more to say on this decline in production standards in later posts on this website.

But this is a moment to savor the Verdian heights, rather than deplore the depths. I am delighted to report to those opera-goers eager to see Verdi operas well sung and presented in respectful and theatrically valid stage productions that  there is yet another triumph in California – “La Traviata” at the Los Angeles Opera.

Instead of mounting their most recent prodution of “La Traviata”, a Jazz-Age production that is on loan to the San Francisco Opera for its Summer season, the Los Angeles Opera revived the stunningly attractive creation by Giovanni Agostinucci, that was first seen in Los Angeles in 1999.  The lavish production (including Agostinucci’s elegant costumes) was a joint initiative with the Washington National Opera and the Opera Royal de Wallonie of Liege, Belgium.

The stage director was Marta Domingo (as she is for San Francisco’s production), who was faithful to the storyline that Verdi set to music, and was obviously attentive to the smallest details. All of the stage action was logical, with each character’s movement flowing naturally from the libretto and the accompanying music.

The performance I observed was the Los Angeles Opera debut of an important new Russian soprano, Marina Poplavskaya. She was impressively paired with Italian tenor Massimo Giordano. Both are artists with voices of power, and both exemplify the expressiveness and control that this most intimate of Verdian operas requires. 

Also debuting in the role of conductor was Los Angeles Opera’s Chorus Master Grant Gershon. He proved an indulgent conductor, permitting both soprano and tenor to to spin out the nuanced phrasing that both have mastered. Yet, only the most severe of purists could fault Gershon for permitting his artists to delight the audience with their beautiful sounds. 

For a century after “La Traviata’s” premiere, it was traditional to make a number of “standard” cuts in the opera, far more than the snipping of “repeats” of the music of cabelettas in Verdi operas that are more often than not observed even today.  The Los Angeles Opera, as is current practice in many major opera companies, restores almost all of Verdi’s missing music.

If one compares a pre-stereo era “complete” performance of the final scene to what Los Angeles Opera actually performed, one will appreciate the dramatic (and sonic) viability of Verdi’s intentions, which I find immensely preferable to the instincts of the 19th century intermediaries that created the “Reader’s Digest” version that was all that previous generations of opera-goers knew.

[Below: Alfredo (Massimo Giordano) impresses Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of The Los Angeles Opera.]

Notes on the Performance

The first act is set in the attractive walled interior courtyard that adjoins a main room in Violetta’s Parisian home. Her guests include her sponsor, the Baron Douphol (played by veteran character bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos), Flora (Margaret Thompson), Doctor Grenvil (Ryan McKinny), Marquis D’Obigny (Daniel Armstrong) and Gastone (Hak Soo Kim). 

But, of course, both Violetta and the audience are drawn to the figure of the stranger, Alfredo Germont. The presence of Giordano, who possesses  a full-throated, creamy lyric tenor voice, in the role of Alfredo, provides an essential element of a memorable “Traviata”. It is a delight to hear Verdi’s most popular tenor music – that, of course, includes “La Traviata’s” (champagne) drinking song Libiamo ne’ lieti calici and Un di felice, eterea, the first section of Alfredo’s classic romantic duet with Violetta – sung by a world class operatic tenor.

For the experienced Verdiano there was a performance detail of note. Italian composers for a half century worked with a convention requiring an on-stage (or near off-stage) group of instruments (the banda) that would play separately of the main orchestra. “Traviata” uses the banda for the music played at Violetta’s party and the Carneval revelers that pass Violetta’s window in her final hours. The banda music in “Traviata” was composed, but not orchestrated, by Verdi. According to the assistant conductor who provided a scholarly (and well-received) pre-performance lecture, the Los Angeles Opera re-orchestrated these banda passages to improve their sound. Their efforts proved to be successful in performance.

Violetta’s first act ends with the most famous succession of arias in the early 19th century cavatina-cabaletta convention that has ever been written for the female voice, Ah fors e lui and Sempre libera. (The most famous male cavatina-cabaletta is Manrico’s Ah si, ben mio and Di quella pira in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. Both “Trov” and “Trav” were composed virtually simultaneously.) Poplavskaya was affecting in the cavatina and tossed off the cabaletta’s fireworks brilliantly.

The second act country house seemed so expensively appointed that one could see at once why Violetta has to sell off possessions to maintain their lifestyle. Giordano further displayed his artistry in a nicely sung De miei bollenti spiriti.

The third member of the trio of star roles was another debut, Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber, who pursued this role with appropriate dignity and gravitas. 

[Below: Giorgio Germont (Andrzej Dobber) consoles Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Dobber brought a warm sound in the duets with Violetta and Alfredo, and a sturdy and effective second act solo, Di Provenza il Mar, il suol.

[Below: Germont (Andrzej Dobber) attempts to persuade his son to return with him to his home in Provence; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

My principal criticism of the production, by the way, will strike most readers as peculiar, although I understand what the opera company was trying to do. They had two intermissions, but, assuming there was a way to do so without  triggering overtime charges for orchestra, chorus and backstage personnel, I would have scheduled a third intermission.

Obviously, Agostinucci’s imposing, solid sets required much work from the stagehands to move from scene to scene. The change from the country villa sets to Flora’s household is particularly daunting. To provide sufficient time for the work to be done, the audience had a lengthy wait in their seats between the two scenes in the darkened theater. 

Agostinucci’s production designs for both Violetta’s home in Paris and country villa are very pleasing, but the spectacular images are those of Flora’s home, where the third act party she hosts takes place. Dominated in red themes, this two story set with wide staircase at stage right, provides the opportunity for the dancers that frequent Flora’s salon  to use the staircase and spaces on both levels in their dance routines. Choreographer Kitty McNamee effectively used principal dancer Timo Nunez, in athletic  flamenco-style dances and in a paso doble – inspired bullfighting sequence. Nunez received a rousing ovation from the Los Angeles audience.

[Below: Dancer Timo Nunez entertains Flora’s guests (and the Los Angeles audience) with his flamenco dancing; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The Los Angeles Opera chorus, who are Gershon’s main assignment with the Los Angeles Opera organization, were engaging party goers, Madame Domingo assuring their active involvement in the events of both Violetta’s Act I party and the Act III party in Flora’s abode. It is the latter event in which the chorus’ acting skills are particularly in demand, and they sang and acted brilliantly.

The dramatic high point in the opera is the scene in which Alfredo, who, in a lover’s tantrum, insults Violetta, and then is publicly rebuked by his father, the Elder Germont. Here, the chorus and the secondary characters collectively add a fourth voice to the trio of principals – Poplavskaya, Giordano and Dobber – in one of the most famous and best of Verdi’s ensemble scenes.

[Below: Giorgio Germont (Andrzej Dobber,  front center) rebukes his son Alfredo (Massimo Giordano,  front right) for his outrageous behavior towards Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya, on chaise lounge at left); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The part of Violetta is challenging for the range of vocal colors it requires. The first act is a coloratura romp, and the scenes in the country villa and at Flora’s party require spinto singing with legato phrasing. The final scene, particularly with the restored cuts, requires the projection of a woman dying of tuberculosis, with faltering breathing (which, to sing, paradoxically, requires great breath control). 

[Below: Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya) in the final moments of her life; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Poplavskaya created a vivid portrait of Violetta in her last hours. Her sad final aria, Addio del passato, was enchantingly sung, her voice blending beautfully with Giordano and Dobber for the final trio. Her solo curtain call produced the standing ovation that stayed in place throughout the enthusiastic cheering for Giordano, their fellow principals and comprimarii, the chorus, dancers, conductor, stage director and choreographer. It proved a brilliant night at the opera!

[Alfredo (Massimo Giordano) holds the body of Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya) in his arms as Doctor Grenvil (Ryan McKinny, center), Giorgio Germont (Andrzej Dobber, left, in shadows) and Annina (Erica Brookhyser, right) look on; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera.

The Los Angeles cast and recent opera performance history

One of the recurring themes of this website is comparing operatic voices heard today in live performance with live performances of the famous singers of the latter half of the twentieth century – particularly those who are associated with the era of the “long play [LP] vinyl record”.  For argumentative purposes I will refer to the most prominent of these singers as the “LP operatic superstars”. 

These superstars were heavily promoted, and great care was given to the processes of recording them. Therefore, even today, opera CD racks abound with recordings by Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills. With their European copyrights expiring, some of these great artists are well represented in the budget-priced offerings as well.

The economics of recording has changed, and there are currently fewer singers in the current millenium that can be expected (or even get the opportunity) to sell large numbers of CDs. In the  case of at least a couple of the most popular (and most often recorded) tenors of our present day, the voices are much lighter than their illustrious predecessors of the vinyl era. So a general impression has risen that the opera singers of our day do not have vocal capabilities of those of, say, the spinto artists of the 1950s through the 1970s.

I was able to see live performances by almost every one of the great LP superstars, importantly excepting Callas. (Callas’ vocal difficulties, evident by 1957, and her management-alienating temperament, resulted in her unavailability for much of her planned performance schedule, including all dates in California, the state where, as a teenager, I resided and attended opera.) 

It takes a brilliant tenor to hold his own against a great Violetta. Because the role of Violetta so abounds with showpieces displaying a full arsenal of coloratura and dramatic techniques, it attracts the superstar sopranos. Opera company managements, who usually must invest substantial resources to obtain a superstar Violetta, have been known to undercast their Alfredos.

I recall performances I attended of three such 20th century superstars. One was Leyla Gencer (who was herself a replacement for Maria Callas, the pre-eminent superstar of her day. Violetta was Gencer’s signature role before she sang her first bel canto role in 1957). Two others were Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. Neither the Alfredo for Gencer, Sutherland nor Sills in performances I saw, was someone who would be considered in the same league as any of these sopranos.

Thus, in this millenium, when I attend live performances of  the operatic singers whom the major houses have chosen for us to hear, I am constantly amazed at how good many, perhaps most, of them are.

Poplavskaya and Giordano are still early in their careers. Neither is yet a famous recording artist. although they have voices that 40 years ago might well have landed them with big classical label contracts. For those who listen to recordings by, say, Mirella Freni or Jose Carreras, and wish they could have heard them in live performance at the height of their powers (which, fortunately, I did), I suggest that they see Poplavskaya and Giordano. You can differentiate, of course, the contemporary voices from that of their illustrious predecessors, but, for exciting performances and beautiful singing, these contemporary voices match the previous generation.