Thursday, November 22, 2007

Re-Examining A Masterpiece

Instead of examining the great works of literature, many students settle for a superficial awareness of a piece by relying on such pre-digested summaries as the ubiquitous Cliff Notes. The result is that these people mistakenly assume an intimate knowledge of the text when, at best, they have grasped a mere hint of what the author intended.

If any opera suffers from this phenomenon, it is La Traviata. Based on Alexandre Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias, Verdi's masterpiece is often treated as little more than a box office staple which contains some pretty tunes and a nice love story. What many people forget is that the circumstances under which Violetta lived, loved and died were, indeed, quite scandalous. When one considers what was happening in Verdi's life at the time he composed La Traviata, it becomes obvious that his opera was meant to be much more than a mere costume show.

Over the years, many stage directors have struggled to make La Traviata relevant to contemporary audiences. Last fall, Franco Zeffirelli laid a multi-million dollar egg on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in his misguided attempt to recreate the cinematic effects of his filmed version of La Traviata. In January at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theater, Francesca Zambello attempted to rework Verdi's opera to tell Violetta's story from a woman's standpoint. While Zambello's Camille: La Traviata struggled to depict Violetta's betrayal by the men the courtesan served -- and serviced-- so well, the show just could not gel on opening night. A curious combination of factors (including the tenor's sudden indisposition) conspired against Zambello's concept and it failed to catch fire in performance.

But there is wonderful news to be told. Last month, an updated, shockingly relevant and theatrically exhilarating production of La Traviata was staged in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thanks to director Nicholas Muni (a disciple of Peter Sellars) and designer John Conklin, there is now something very exciting about Verdi's masterpiece that is genuinely worth writing about.


As Tulsa Opera's new General Director, Muni updated his production of La Traviata to the present. Thus, Violetta becomes a very intelligent call girl who, well aware that she is dying of AIDS, has decided to liquidate her stock portfolio as a means of funding her limited time with Alfredo. Populating his party scenes with the kind of recognizable Yuppie types who could easily be found prowling the late night Soho/SOMA/Eurotrash scene, Muni makes it abundantly clear that money (whether used to pay for sex, drugs, or personal favors) is constantly changing hands as a part of today's trendy party scene. And that for such party animals, sex is a marketable commodity. With Gastone acting as a high-class pimp, no one in the audience can ignore the fact that there is a strong economic incentive which draws girls to parties hosted by Violetta, Flora and other high class hookers.

Act I offers plenty of food for thought. Act II takes place on a patio overlooking a swimming pool. Dressed in bermuda shorts and polo shirts, Alfredo and a friend enter with tennis racquets in hand (the friend later makes convenient use of a portable telephone to call his stockbroker). When Germont arrives (intent on buying off Violetta with an attache case full of money), he quickly falls victim to the professional woman's sexual allure. While wrapping his arms around Violetta's waist to console her, his fingers begin to roam until the prudish father from Provence finds himself fondling the publicly-prized breasts of his son's lover.

Act III's party scene features a videotape of Zeffirelli's La Traviata film projected onto a giant TV screen, a toreador whose act is modeled after a Chippendale's dancer and, hanging off to one side of the stage, a giant Andy Warhol rip-off showing 16 reproductions of Maria Callas's face aglow with green eye shadow. Instead of throwing his money at Violetta during the confrontation scene, the near-hysterical Alfredo pulls a gun on the woman he loves and proceeds to publicly humiliate her in front of everyone by informing the partygoers that Violetta has been underwriting his expenses in the same way a prostitute might subsidize a pimp. At the close of Act III, Alfredo takes the Baron hostage with his gun.

The final scene is staged in a bleak and lonely hospital ward whose sole occupant is the dying Violetta. Hooked up to IV tubes -- and with precious little stamina left to sustain her until Alfredo's return -- Verdi's heroine spends the remainder of the opera dying of AIDS in a hospital bed. In her final moments she becomes delirious, starts to hemorrhage and expires as the Yuppie doctor (who has been a fixture at her parties) coldly notes the moment when his patient stopped breathing.

For anyone who has visited a dying friend in the hospital, this scene was as painfully relevant as opera can be (Muni's interpretation of La Traviata will force singers to re-examine this great work every time it touches their lives). The fact that this production of La Traviata was so intelligently conceived and economically designed on a budget of $100,000 is a great tribute to the entrepreneurial efforts and creative talents of Nicholas Muni and John Conklin. Together, these men succeeded in very sensitively articulating to the audience the delicate relationships involved in La Traviata and presenting the controversial social issues which Verdi tackled when he composed his brave and daring opera. Tulsa Opera deserves a great deal of respect for delivering far more operatic truth in this remarkably cost-effective production than one is likely to find at the Met (which squanders millions on Franco Zeffirelli's masturbatory spectacles).

And what of the singers? Forceful cameos came from Deborah Milsom as Flora, David Ronis as Gastone, David Corman as the Baron and Emily Bullock as Violetta's dykish "secretary," Annina. Performances which were much stronger dramatically than vocally came from tenor John David DeHaan as Alfredo and Robert Galbraith as Germont. Long, loud and sustained bravos go to Frances Ginsberg -- one of the bravest and most exciting Violettas to grace the stage in years. The soprano delivered one of the most dramatically committed and vocally thrilling interpretations of this role that I've witnessed in nearly 25 years of operagoing. Brava, bravissima!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 24, 1990.

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