by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor Marco Armiliato
The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center

March 22, 2008

As everyone knows, my column "Croyden's Corner" on this web is devoted mostly to covering theater criticism and the New York theater scene. Though I have written about music and dance in the past as well, I have done it not as a conventional critic but as one going to the event for the first time and discussing it only from a theatrical vantage point. So it seems logical that I should now write about opera for it encompasses everything theatrical--music, singing, dancing, and spoken dialogue. Besides, this is most interesting time since Peter Gelb (general manager) is undertaking new and remarkable events to bolster this most gorgeous art. And young people for whom this piece is intended will hopefully take advantage of the remarkable events that the company offers.

I've picked one of the most famous and lovable operas in the world, to discuss: Verdi's "La Traviata," renowned not only for its gorgeous music but for the dramatic plot about lovers who, because of the class system, were fated to be destroyed. The story, in fact, has been immortalized not only by the great Greta Garbo in her film "Camille," but also by its world wide performances by world wide divas. But the most spectacular rendition of this "Traviata" it that it is designed and directed by the famous Franco Zeffirelli, who has won endless acclaim for his imagination and nerve in producing one of the most lavish and spectacular designs--surely a highpoint in the Met's season of the greats.

Although the plot is generally well know, I repeat it here for those in the younger generation who have not yet seen it. Verdi took the story from the famous "La Dame Aux Camelias" by Alexandre Dumas, a simple melodrama, albeit a powerful one. Violetta (Ruth Anne Swenson), a Lady of the night, to put it politely, enjoys her world of splendor, her numerous parties, and wealthy lovers. Enter her future lover, Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani) who has secretly been enamored of her and hopes to win her favor. And eventually he succeeds. But his father, a respectable upper class gent, is determined to break up the affair owing to his family's reputation and the position he and his son hold in society. It would be a scandal for his son Alfredo to be involved with a courtesan. The father convinces Violetta to reject her lover for his own sake. Which she does. This scene between Dwayne Croft as the father and Ruth Anne Swenson as Violetta is particularly moving; it contains one of the most famous emotionally pieces of music, sung here with tenderness and compassion-- surely a highpoint in the opera. Abandoned, disgraced, and dying of TB Violetta returns to her former life. In the end, Alfredo is told of her sacrifice and the lovers are united for a moment. But it is too late.

But the most impressive star of this "Traviata" besides the splendid cast, is Franco Zeferelli whose sets, costumes and entire production is something to behold. There have been other "Traviatas" but none like this one. Take the opening scene. With the entire company of revelers dominating the stage, moving about, singing the well known opening music, we are immediately amazed by the elaborate and gorgeous set and costumes. Three arches dominate the stage, balls of light, lamps of all sizes, colorful costumes, plenty of sequins, and the heroine, Violetta in a sparking green ball gown. The acting at the beginning is somewhat slow, but as the story enfolds and the glorious music takes hold, the pace increases, and the singers are more alive and theatrical. Still the dazzling sets, costumes, color and lights overshadow everything.

And there is more to come in the second act. In a spectacular coup du theatre, the curtain opens on a party given by Violetta's friend, Flora. And what a mise en scene: red colors everywhere--the curtains--the costumes--the lights, the array of puppets--all in red to dramatize the glamour and decadence of Paris. Lamps are all over the stage and a huge red scrim of sequins and sparkles surround the entire stage. And of course there is the staircase--center stage-- always a dramatic must for the entrance of the leading characters. Add to this are the sexy dancers in a passionate Spanish gypsy dance, a tantalizing emblem of the entire story--and the highlight of the act to be sure. Soon Violetta enters at the top of the stairs on the arm of her former lover: she has returned to her old profession and the superficiality of Parisian life. Alfredo is also at the party and inevitably Violetta's two lovers, meet, clash, and a duel is at hand. Violetta faints as the curtain falls.

In the last act Violetta is alone deserted by everyone and dying of TB. Alfredo having discovered his father's interference, rushes to Violetta's side. But it is too late.

Although this was the last performance of "Traviata" this season, hopefully it will be shown again. If so, do not miss it. But you can see another Franco Zeferelli's startling work at the Met beginning March 29-April 5: Puccini's "La Boheme." To be sure this will be another unforgettable experience.

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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