Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

Graveyard Shift

August 12, 2009

Natalie Dessay as Violetta
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

What’s the best strategy for an opera company to weather tough times? I can’t tell you. But I do know that Santa Fe Opera has lucked into a confluence of factors that’s hopefully helping to keep this vital American company afloat in the rising economic waters. It is typical for the company to schedule lots of performances of at least one old warhorse every summer. This company is also no stranger to the occasional big A-list star. But this year they have two of these factors rolled into one with what is clearly the hottest ticket here this season with Natalie Dessay returning to Santa Fe for her first performances in Verdi’s La Traviata. I saw it on Tuesday and will say that despite criticism from some quarters that she’s too lightweight for the role, there is no question that she is a viable and intriguing Violetta. That’s not to say she’s one of the best ever, or even one of the best currently signing the part based on this viewing. But she clearly brings something to the table, so to speak.

Specifically, the thing I found most interesting was that she actually seemed like a somewhat naive, high-spirited party girl. When love comes along she is totally blindsided by it and unable to contend with the implications. Her approach stands out in a world filled with rich creamy interpretations from the likes of Gheorghiu and Fleming who sing the role exquisitely, but create the sensation that Violetta is both matronly and worldly wise. Violetta should always be a little more Sophie than the Marschallin in my view, and this is one Traviata where I didn't sit around wondering why Alfredo would be so in love with someone obviously his mother's age. Dessay appears to be the youthful red-hot center of light in this world as she bounds from the back of the stage in her opening scene with a squeal in a flouncy pink gown and fire-red hair. Her singing is beautiful and her coloratura is on full display in an Act I that seems to fit her better than the demands of the later acts. She is paired with Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo and Dessay's real life husband, Laurent Naouri, as Germont. Neither is quite up to her game, but Naouri is fairly close giving a competent if not completely heartbreaking turn in the role. Pirgu is likable, attractive, and athletic, but overwhelmed in the vocal clutch with some gravel-tinged high notes. Frederic Chaslin conducted the orchestra in a lively turn and seemed to have things well coordinated with the stage.

Natalie Dessay as Violetta
Photo: mine 2009

Of course, this is not only Dessay’s return to Santa Fe, but also that of one of her favorite collaborators, Laurent Pelly. Pelly has created marvelous comic productions too numerous to mention including the recent worldwide smash staging of Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (which starred Dessay) and Platée for Opera de Paris. And while Pelly is undoubtedly a comic master, here in a drama things aren’t quite smooth sailing. The opera opens with Alfredo watching a funeral procession complete with coffin crossing the stage. The implication is that the opera to follow is all told in flashback and I would argue also that Violetta is always, already dead. The stage is filled with a mountain of various-sized gray boxes with narrow walkways in between. And while it’s not explicit, the stage itself may be one giant memento mori - the boxes being tombs in some older European cemetery. The boxes are dressed up with turf and later mirrors in Act II and covered in sheets for Act III, but Violetta is always aware of exactly where she is headed. She just can’t keep dancing on her own grave forever. It’s a production that is short on spectacle, but big on ideas, which, needless to say, would make it a production that is a hard sell if it weren’t for Dessay. In the end, despite all the thought, though, it was a little hard to connect with and wore on one's nerves after awhile. But it was Dessay's night, and things rolled right along with a strong public response to the show. Given that this is her first turn in the role, the next question would be where does she go with it from here and how does her performance continue to evolve in the part. She's starting from a very interesting place.


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