Concupiscent Consumption: La Traviata at Glimmerglass

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Mary Dunleavy as Violetta, Ryan MacPherson as Alfredo
Mary Dunleavy as Violetta, Ryan MacPherson as Alfredo

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, and directed by Jonathan Miller
Glimmerglass Opera Summer Festival 2009

New co-production with the Vancouver Opera, sung in Italian with English supertitles
Performances through August 25, 2009

Director: Jonathan Miller
Conductor:  Mikhail Agrest
Sets, Costumes: Isabella Bywater
Lighting: Robert Wierzel
Choreography:  Terry John Bates
Projected Titles: Kelley Rourke
Hair, Makeup: Anne Ford-Coates
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra and Chorus


Violetta Valéry: Mary Dunleavy
Alfredo Germont: Ryan MacPherson
Giorgio Germont : Malcolm MacKenzie
Flora Bervoix: Liza Forrester
Marchese D’Obigny: Damien Pass
Barone Douphol: Michael Krzankowski
Grenvil: David Kravitz
Gastone: John Rodger
Annina: Rebecca Jo Loeb
Giuseppe: Steven Brennfleck
Commissario: Kevin Wetzel
Servant: Adam Fry

I first became acquainted with Jonathan Miller’s work at Glimmerglass in 2006 with his remarkable production of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa. An unsettling work, it conveyed the romance and flavor of Czech rural life and the malignant tragic effects of fanaticism borne of sexual repression and religious fervor. Miller transposed both space and time, bringing the drama to a post-World War II Czech community in the American Midwest. I couldn’t imagine a more creative coup: an arena where post-war idealism’s challenge to pre-war sexual mores is portrayed microscopically for an insular ethnic community, and more broadly as a national pathology. Miller, at once, was able to remind us that the horrific acts of Janáček’s antagonist had an objective correlative in the same conservative fanaticism that beset our post-war America. The scenery, décor, and costumes, while never minimal, were always sensible and utilitarian. Striking use of simple lighting allowed the drama to unfold without distraction. How lucky I felt that such a conception was so successfully matched by this intimate upstate New York theatre, with world-class singers, musicians, and superb acoustics.

How fortunate for us again to have Jonathan Miller serve up one of the staples of the repertoire: Verdi’s La Traviata, based on La Dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexander Dumas, fils, published in 1848. The tragedy of a Parisian courtesan is replete with nineteenth-century plot equipage: romance, familial sacrifice, social stigma, abandonment, tuberculosis, and, of course, untimely death. Verdi wasted almost no time in having Francesco Piave adapt a libretto, renaming the heroine, Marguerite Gautier, Violetta Valéry. While Mr Miller passed this time on transposing time and space, keeping this work firmly footed in mid-nineteenth-century Paris, he has shorn away from this sometimes precious tale of love and death much of the affectation, gesture, and dramatic paraphernalia that can seem bathetic to modern sensibility. However, while the fat may have been trimmed, there is still enough marbling for a delicious melodrama. As in Jenůfa, Mr Miller teamed with costume and set designer Isabella Bywater and lighting guru Robert Wierzel. Both of these great talents worked the magic of minimal visual stimuli that project maximal emotional and dramatic impact. The same stage structures, gray taupe faux-marble French wall coverings, with interchangeable window and door fenestrae, are used for each act. A few giggles followed the curtain up in Act II where Violetta’s summer love hut looked too much like her apartment a few minutes before. But Bywater’s simple structures conveyed all that was needed for the perfumed redolence of courtesan’s salon, the pallid interior of a country cottage, the gallery of a mansion, or the gray gloom of the dying heroine’s boudoir.

None of Miller’s clean-cut and balanced vision could be transcendent without remarkable singers. There are few characters to cast here, and each must be strong. Soprano Mary Dunleavy, who specializes in this difficult role, and has performed it in the grander interiors of the Met and Covent Garden, gave us a brilliantly balanced Violetta. In her clarion high range, her voice was always true, clear, and beautifully controlled. Her quiet moments and softer enunciations were delivered, at times, with a lovely white sotto voce. Her death scene was performed entirely reclined in bed: a sharp break from the tradition that would have her dart about in agitated delirium. Mr Miller was once quoted as saying that “Dying is a full-time job” – one that Violetta must deal with lying down. Robert Wierzel’s lighting, as masterful here as it was in Jenůfa, beautifully captured the dying heroine in a subdued cameo.

The young count Alfredo Germont, Violetta’s lover, while accepting her social caste and her delicate health, believes that with his devotion and care the ephemeral can be countered. Of course, Violetta has consumption. She can buy quality time with the love and care Alfredo offers in her country house – a choice that literally bankrupts her. Germont’s father, Giorgio, disgraced by his son’s liaison with a prostitute, connives to split the pair, citing an onset of moral scruples which has stalled Alfredo’s more observant sister from her impending nuptials. Violetta, not wanting to quash the family values extolled by Giorgio, agrees to abandon Alfredo. Her desertion and return to the salon life hasten her end. Alfredo never knows the truth until she is at death’s door. Tenor Ryan MacPherson, who was the assured Luzio in last year’s production of Wagner’s Liebesverbot, turns in a solid performance as Alfredo. Dropping the customary Italian bravura, MacPherson dispatched his role with élan both in solos and with Violetta in duet. He’s good looking, she’s good looking, and they both sing well – what more could one want? Papa Giorgio, Malcolm MacKenzie, was superb. His exhortations to Violetta, “Piangi, piangi, o misera,” – Weep, weep, oh unhappy woman,” had the appropriate mix of severity and consolation. Dunleavy’s mastery of the complex four-section aria, “è strano!,” leading to “Sempre libera,” was so beautifully nuanced, so perfectly articulated,  and so brilliant, that it rivaled any living soprano’s work. Her more challenging dramatic and lyric moments in Acts II and III were imparted with sincerity and vocal intensity. She was a stunning performer from start to finish, an artist who has plumbed this role’s depth for years.

The minor roles were given to upcoming talent enlisted as residents in Glimmerglass’ endowed Young American Artists Program. More than a few of these ardent young talents return as accomplished professionals. In light of the frightening tenor of our economic times, we can only hope that this program will continue.

My single detracting complaint, which I have experienced for the past few years, is that the supertitles, very high up above the stage, give one’s eyes a vertical workout. This discriminates, unfortunately, against those seated in the orchestra.

Glimmerglass has evolved over decades and is close to being nonpareil as the intimate opera venue in this country. As a repertory music festival, one can always be assured of a suite of works to justify a week’s vacation in upstate New York. The concentration of artistic integrity in the beautiful setting near Cooperstown and Lake Otsego is always refreshing. The juxtaposition of baseball and opera fanaticism seems odd at first. However, some of the most devoted opera enthusiasts I know are closet baseball addicts – and vice versa. One must buy tickets early in the season since performances can easily sell out. The two productions by Mr Miller (a fascinating vision of Purcell’s Dido and Æneas being the second) should not be missed. One hopes that these productions will be released on DVD.

While it has been called America’s Glyndebourne, you can leave the black tie and Pimms at home, and come with great informality to hear fine opera. It’s hard not to think of baseball when you’re in Cooperstown, but the real homers are hit five miles away at the Alice Busch Theater.

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