Please forgive me if I think of Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello as religious dramas—a father must (or thinks he must) give a child over unwillingly to death—Abraham and Isaac all over again. It is not insignificant that Otello is old enough to be Desdemona’s father. Nor is it insignificant that there is a constant use of the word sacrifice in La Traviata, and no use of the word in Otello. Reading Garry Wills’ recent book Why Priests? has instructed me of the indelibility of the sacraments for old style Catholics. Once a priest, you are always a priest. Once married as a devout Catholic, you are always married. Thus Desdemona’s death was not considered a sacrifice by the Church since she had in fact given up nothing and had no penitential past. Desdemona is a Mary, a Jesus. The traviata is a Mary Magdalene, and must forever pay for a temporary profession. An unchangeable religious code is at the center of La Traviata, its tragic motor. When we realize this we hear the elder Germont as a sympathetic character nearly, more afraid of damnation than disgrace.
If it isn’t clear already that Violetta is a kind of religious sacrificer, it becomes so in the prelude to the fourth act, where straight high strings presage the ethereal. She and Desdemona seem to be sisters here. The traviata of course has a whole other side, the frivolity of the first act, in her great aria of false jollity. Violetta and Alfredo have jollity; Desdemona and Otello have purity. What does this mean? It means that the role of Violetta Valery is a killer. You have to have everything. Rachele Schmiege went a long way toward filling this gigantic task. On the lighter side vocally, she was able to sing “Ah forse e lui” with agility. In fact she convinced me, so skillful was she at this, that I might not see a deep connection with the rest of the role. I was wrong. The highlight of the production was the Violetta/elder Germont duet, where Ms. Schmiege seemed a completely different being. She was not afraid to sing softly, very softly. She sang a kind of control, not only of herself, but of the situation, and it was actually Germont who did the weeping. There was an absolute resolve in the beauty of her singing, not in the sound, which was ravishing, but in the line, which was determination. Every facet of the duet was made vivid. Robert Aaron Taylor, as the elder Germont in his lyrical stillness, convinced me that he was not a villain, not a bigot, but full of remorse for his very faith. This part of the opera was really first-rate. Christopher Lucier as Alfredo gave a creditable performance, not fully formed yet, but with potential. As always, Kara Cornell made her part, though small, vivid. Nicholas Wiggins sang the Baron with resonance and clarity.
I could have done without the projections. I’m sure the idea was well-intentioned, but especially when the figures moved on the screen, it distracted mightily from the action on stage. Good direction focuses the audience’s attention, it doesn’t distract it. A sure way to make the audience distrust what is happening on stage, is the director mistrusting it. La Traviata looks backward as well as forward, and many of the set pieces are accompanied by a simple bel canto rhythm in the orchestra. After the first beat in this pattern, the following beats must be lighter to keep the line vital. It should never sound repetitive, and occasionally it did in this production. La Traviata is about singing. All the focus should be there. Great singing will enchant and hold and move, and in the last utterances of Violetta and Desdemona, even sound beyond death. The singing is the drama; it must be trusted. Verdi himself has told us this again and again. The company’s own Jason Dolmetsch has shown a clear understanding of this in his direction of HHOT’s productions of The Medium and Trouble in Tahiti. And by the way, some of the best singing came from Joanne Nelson Unczar on oboe in the fourth act, and David Ciucevich on clarinet in the second act.
None of this is meant to detract from the excellent project, which Philip Morris of Proctors, and Alexina Jones of Hubbard Hall Opera Theatre have put together, but to help. This was another adventurous and elegant occasion. Alix seems to create these everywhere. My hat is off to her for this valiant effort. Success will surely follow.