Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Piangi, it's good for you

September 10, 2006

Renée Fleming as Violetta Valery.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006
The 2006/07 LA Opera Season kicked off last night with the first of three performances of an all-star La Traviata. It’s tempting to read meaning into this performance given many of the coincidences associated with it, but that may not be wise or fair to do since, in reality, this is only one performance of one opera. It is subject to the same artistic factors good and bad that many productions are subject to and any greater meaning for the future of the company or opera in Los Angeles may only be clear in retrospect.

Yet, this doesn’t change the fact that there are a number of unusual aspects to this particular production that both the press and community will reflect upon. For instance, this La Traviata is the fist LA Opera appearance for James Conlon, the company's new Music Director. Does his performance or the orchestra’s say much about their future relationship? Tonight, while the playing was at times ragged, overall Conlon made himself known right away, taking a much more cautious and thoughtful pace than is currently popular with many other conductors. The Act I party became less of a manic free-for-all and more of a bright and breezy affair. Additionally, Conlon had firm control of everyone and kept things clear in some of the more rhythmically challenging spots. He seems to have figured out a lesson others miss: La Traviata is not a race. The audience greeted Conlon with a healthy roar at the start of each act and during his own curtain call at the end. Perhaps more telling, though, was the appearance of the entire orchestra on stage with Conlon for their own curtain call at the end. Whether this is an opening night gesture, a sign of unity and camaraderie, or both remains to be seen.

The money shot. Rolando Villazón as Alfredo Germont.
Video Image: LA Opera 2006
Another important feature of tonight’s performance was the company debut for Renée Fleming. (She has given a recital for the company in the past.) While major stars have appeared in LA in the past, principals have often been relatively young performers just starting out or singers who are well known but generally past their prime. It is only recently that they have drawn bigger, current international starts like Ms. Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna, Susan Graham, Bryn Terfel and others. Does Ms. Fleming’s appearance suggest a new era of increasingly A-list casting in LA? Reading last night’s tea leaves would largely depend on what one thinks of Ms. Fleming and where she is in her career. Much was made prior to her appearance over which of two Marta Domingo directed Traviata stagings that LA Opera owns would be used for these performances - a more traditional one or a 1920s “flapper”-themed one. Also, part of the contractual arrangements for this production included a DVD quality film to be produced featuring Ms. Fleming's performance for which extra money needed to be raised. My thoughts – Fleming is very good, but she’s no Violetta. Coloratura was nowhere to be found in Act I and I think she often missed the more fiery aspects of Violetta’s character. Things picked up though and she demonstrated just why she’s a superstar in the more lyric passages in Act II and Act III.

Finally, this La Traviata is the first show of the company's 21st season. Will this give us any indication of where the company is headed artistically? Whether it does or not, it certainly tells us something about where it has been. As previously mentioned this was an old production from the 01-02 season that was revived at some expense in order to have a “traditional” production for the videotaping. Ironically, Ms. Domingo directed a new staging that the company presented last June. Both were boring. Ms. Domingo doesn’t seem to appreciate how large the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion stage actually is and gives us one large empty featureless room after the next. She will tend to pick a color (say orange, gray, or red) and run with it – not in a good Robert Wilson kind of way but in a bad Garanimals kind of way.

Rolando Villazón as Alfredo Germont and Renato Bruson as Giorgio Germont.
Photo: Robert Millard 2006
However, boring and staid may well be what people want, or at least the kind of people opera companies seem desperate to attract these days. The crowd on opening night was near hysterical in their adulation for virtually everyone and everything. The frequent pauses for clapping mid-act (and in one case mid-aria) certainly played a role in stretching this evening out to near Wagnerian length at 3 and 1/2 plus hours. Some of it was deserved. This is the second time I’ve seen Villazón sing Alfredo and he is magnificent. The same can be said for Mr. Bruson who was the first completely believable elder Germont I have seen. When Mr. Bruson started to sing, it was easy to forget that Mr. Hvorostovsky (who I've seen in this role as well) backed out in rather short order. All this, and hometown favorite Suzanna Guzmán as Flora to boot.

In short, this was an Act II La Traviata. When the emotions turn darker and fill with regret, Ms. Fleming really started to shine and stellar performances from the men brought it all together. Despite its faults, it was hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm the crowd showed for this La Traviata. Where to from here? Only time will tell.


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