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Monday, July 22, 2019

The Rise of the Fallen Angel

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY the Patriarchy fell victim to what’s termed the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, in which certain men, the dears, find sexual fulfillment only with reputation-tarnished women, reserving their admiration for the (as they see it) unsullied. The topic has been pondered by thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Naomi Wolf, and informs all manner of art and literature.

Kang Wang and Amanda Woodbury
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Alexandre Dumas fils spun out a roman à clef in his 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias, recounting his own brief affair with a Parisian demimondaine (the term is a Dumas coinage) who died of tuberculosis (or syphilis, depending on who you wish to believe) at the age of 23. In the novel, this offers the character a kind of redemption, which was a handy device for the fictionist – although Richardson’s Clarissa, a century earlier, maintained her virginity for several hundred torrid pages, when she’s finally raped by the scheming Lovelace, she re-achieves a convoluted kind of innocence by dying fairly turgidly thereafter.

Dumas turned his scandalous novel into a scandalous play, and Verdi, with his keen sense of effective musical drama, quickly turned it into La traviata, which, after a rocky initial reception, has become an opera-house mainstay. The spectacle of a “fallen woman” achieving recognition and wealth through her profession continues to delight us, although we suspect from the start that hers will be an unhappy end. Transgressors must be punished, according to a hoary moral code, relieving an audience of guilt over any sense of unwonted pleasure.

But La traviata is actually a study of social class. Although it’s galvanized by an improbable love story, at its heart is the second-act confrontation between the courtesan, here named Violetta Valéry, and the father of her beloved Alfredo. She can’t continue to live with his son because of the scandal it will cause his family – particularly the daughter whose planned nuprials will be blighted. Recognizing this societal gulf, Violetta accedes.

Tucker Reed Breder, Jorrell Lawyer-Jefferson and ensemble
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
In the current Glimmerglass Festival production, Violetta is beautifully sung by Amanda Woodbury, whose vivaciousness in the opening scene gives way to a credible sense of domesticity at the start of Act Two. She is selling her possessions to fund life in the country with Alfredo, which is where his father finds her. Adrian Timpau, as Giorgio Germont, was having some vocal trouble at the performance I saw, but this was most apparent only in his big sustained-note numbers, like “Di Provenza il mar, il suol,” which he delivered nicely if hurriedly. But the duet, “Dite alla giovine, sì bella e pura,” was magnificently rendered, both vocally and with a powerful sense of staging courtesy director Francesca Zambello, who deftly explored images of conquest and retreat in her placement of the singers.

Kang Wang sang the star tenor role of Alfredo with a supple and nuanced voice, from the drinking song that practically opens the opera, to his right-off-the-bat love declaration (“Un dì, felice, eterea”), on through to the third-act duet “Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo,” which is where I can’t help but begin to choke up. What’s missing is more of a stage presence, especially as he’s up against some masterful acting – Timpau, for instance, showed the power of stillness to suggest authority.

Amanda Woodbury and Kang Wang
Photo: Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival
There is spectacle, of course, as grand opera requires. Act Two, scene two begins with a lavish party at which gypsies and matadors dance, featuring Parker Esse’s deft choreography (here re-realized by Andrea Beasom) and lovely period costumes by Jess Goldstein. It’s a party celebrating the superficial life, giving Alfredo all the more reason to believe that Violetta abandoned him only on a capricious whim.

But no. It was a noble act of self-sacrifice, as he discovers too late. Violetta is on her deathbed as the third act opens. Zambello and Woodbury stayed pretty close to director (and doctor) Jonathan Miller’s advice to keep the character credible by keeping her more or less in bed. (Miller directed this opera at Glimmerglass in 1989, and gave a master class in directing this scene there five years ago.) It’s all the more effective, and all the more heartbreaking when she bids goodbye to her life and her dreams in  “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti.”

This is a radiant, effective production enhanced by a virtuoso orchestra under the baton of music director Joseph Colaneri, who feels a score like this in his marrow. My only quarrel is in the staging of the Act One and Act Three preludes. Giving us the hospital setting right at the start is a too-literal foreshadowing of Violetta’s fate. It’s in the music, and it’s all the more misterioso, misterioso altero when it’s the music alone tugging at our hearts.

This was the first opera I got to know as a melancholy teen, and I remain protective of it. A half-century later, a superb production like this one still sends me out into the world misty and a little dazed. Verdi was a cunning musical magician, and this production made the most of his many tricks. It runs through August 24; more information here.

La traviata
Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Based on La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils.
Conducted by Joseph Colaneri
Directed by Francesca Zambello
The Glimmerglass Festival
Cooperstown, NY, July 21, 2019

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