Seattle's La Traviata shows tradition can be beautiful

By Joel Grant
Published: 11/9/2009

Of first importance in evaluating any production of La Traviata is whether or not the production’s Violetta can handle this multi-faceted role.  Nuccia Focile was very much up to the task (although, on this night, she did experience some Act One technical problems).  Ms. Focile is a world-class vocal performer who feels every word and every note as Violetta’s circumstances change and evolve.  She lived Violetta’s tragic story through her expressive voice and heartfelt vocal acting. 

This is a traditional production, with period sets and costumes, and yet director Mark Streshinsky manages to put his own stamp on the drama, interpreting Violetta as someone who is trapped by the conventions of her situation (a courtesan) into having to enact her life as a role on a stage. 

                                                              La Traviata, Act 3

                                                              La Traviata, Act 3

This reading is suggested in the prelude, during which Violetta,  in party clothes, lies lifeless near the footlights.  Slowly she rises and is greeted by Douphol, who demands that she join the party.  Violetta twists her face into a half smile/half grimace, stifles her coughs, and joins the Baron.

She puts on her courtesan role even as she puts on her dress.

And in Act Two, scene two, the party in Flora’s house, Violetta’s interpolated comments are highlighted as everyone else on the stage freezes, and every light but one spot on Violetta dim.  Once again, Violetta, having renounced Alfredo in order to support Germont’s daughter, Alfredo’s sister, is playing a part in her own life.

In short, Mr. Streshinsky’s choices are subtle but, collectively, very powerful.  This is a production that deserves to be preserved for posterity.

The other principal singers were splendid.

In his Seattle Opera debut, Dimitri Pittas thrilled as Alfredo.  His voice is ideally situated for this role, and he brings an impressive passion and youthful sound (never forget that Alfredo is a very young man).  His Act Two cabaletta, “De’miei bollenti spiriti” was thrilling.  “O mio rimorso” was passionate and ended with an almost-perfect top C.

Charles Taylor’s Germont was imposing and believable.  “Di Provenza” was passionate and heartfelt.  Germont’s and Violetta’s voices blended perfectly during their extended Act Two scene.

                                                 Focile as Violetta, Pittas as Alfredo

                                                 Focile as Violetta, Pittas as Alfredo

The costumes, rented (with the exception of Violetta’s dresses) from San Francisco, are works of art.  In particular, the beautiful dresses and Spanish toreador apparel worn during Flora’s party were eye-catching.

Principal dancers Antonio Granjero and Sara de Luis almost stopped the show.  Their Spanish-style turn was a terrific turn.

The sets, also rented from San Francisco, were sumptuous.  Of particular note were the HGTV-approved tables and accessories in Act One.  Even the supers were well-trained as the waiters, like synchronous swimmers in an Esther William movie, whisked the covers off Violetta’s guests’ meals. 

A special mention should be made of former Seattle Opera Young Artist Sarah Heltzel who played Flora as well as she can be played.  It does not hurt that Ms. Heltzel is a beautiful, vivacious redhead, just about a perfect casting choice.

She sang well, partied well and, when Violetta needed a friend, was convincingly concerned and comforting.  Flora and all of the minor roles were apparently challenged by Mr. Streshinsky to do more (like Annina, at the beginning of Act Three, quietly selling one of Violetta’s last painting to acquire the twenty Louis d’Or she mentions to Violetta later) than they do in most productions.

Brian Garman did a masterful job, subtly and artistically leading the great orchestra through the score, with an eye always towards supporting the singers and the drama.  He accepted well-earned applause at the end.

Joel Grant is a Classical Voice correspondent based in Seattle, Washington.  Joel has been an opera buff since, as a member of the First Congregational Church of Downers Grove, IL, he listened to the voice of his fellow member Sherrill Milnes.  Joel is a software engineer for Boeing Co.