When the name Domingo is mentioned in relation to Los Angeles Opera, the first thought is naturally about its director, maestro Plácido. And in this production of La Traviata, the big draw — the ne plus ultra —is Plácido singing the part of père Germont. The roars of approval after every snatch of song by the beloved baritone underscore his great popularity. But the Domingo that dominates this production is not Plácido, but his Mexican-born wife, Marta Domingo, who is both the director and production designer. Her vision of a tragic love story in “Roaring Twenties” America is not only a feast for the eyes, but an effective way of presenting a way of life that, by the 1920s, had already vanished forever.
La Traviata is a close adaptation of La Dame aux Camèlias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, published in 1848. The protagonist of the novel, Marguerite (Violetta in the opera), is based on the life of Marie Duplessis, Dumas’ real-life lover. In the demi-monde of mid-19th-century Paris, Duplessis and women like her were known as courtisanes — not exactly prostitutes, but women imbued with such beauty, charm and intellect, as to become objects of great desire among wealthy aristocrats. They usually took many lovers, sometimes more than one at once, and the most celebrated could extract enough from their boyfriends to fund a very comfortable life. But the antique moral codes that underpinned the world of courtesans and their enablers disappeared by 1914 and the onset of World War I. In LA Opera’s 2009 production, we were firmly in the 19th century; in this Traviata, we are really looking at the world of “Flapper Girls,” quite a different phenomenon.
The sets of this production aren’t lavish, like we saw in Baz Luhrman’s sets for The Great Gatsby, but the spare, elegant Art-Deco furnishings and decorative elements, along with the glamorous, glitzy costumes, set a glossy tone. The period is underscored when, in the first act, a gleaming 1920s Rolls Royce glides in from stage left to dispense passengers at the bar. There is an even more raucous scene later on at the casino, but for me the more emotionally resonant sets were the quiet ones. Like the trees with their autumn leaves rustling in the breeze in Act II, or snow quietly falling on the ailing Violetta.
Verdi wrote La Traviata to showcase three principal singers: Violetta (Nino Machaidze), her lover Alfredo Germont (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) and his father Giorgio Germont (Plácido Domingo). Of the three, Machaidze is the standout. Her voice is clear and flawless, and fills the hall effortlessly, easily rising above the orchestra even at full crescendo. With her dark beauty and elegant airs, she is a completely believable Violetta. Plácido is also completely believable — perhaps more as a prosperous Milanese or Madrileño than as an American father — but he commands the stage with his presence and still sings beautifully, if not quite as powerfully as he used to. La Traviata must be a sentimental favorite of Mr. Domingo’s, seeing as he made his operatic debut in 1961 playing the (tenor) role of Alfredo in the same opera.
While this opera deals with the themes of love and death, there seems to be much greater focus on the former. From the first notes of the lyrical prelude to the introductory libretto about the delights of pleasure and the senses, Verdi knows what will please his audience. How about a nice waltz? You can pick from three or four. And if you need even more candy for your senses, just wait for the casino scene where six gold lamé-clad dancers sing and dance, and solo dancer Louis A. Williams, Jr. amazes with his athleticism.
Despite Violetta’s miserable death from tuberculosis, one walks or rather floats away from the experience elevated by champagne bubbles of pleasure. Verdi’s music, so admirably conducted by James Conlon, lodges between your ears and bestows a glimmer of what it might have been like to stand with the barons, bigwigs, counts and courtesans back in those heady, glamorous, wretched days of yore.
—David Maurer, Culture Spot LA
“La Traviata” continues through Sept. 28 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. For tickets or more information, call (213) 972-8001 or visit http://www.laopera.org/season/1415-Season-at-a-Glance/La-Traviata/.