La Traviata just shy of magnifique

The opera, a narrative of French love and tuberculosis, is a near-miss for the usually excellent Lyric.

By MJ Chen

Verdi’s La traviata (“The Fallen Woman”) has all the requisite elements of a good tearjerker: a pretty lady, a thwarted love, and some deeply poignant music. This makes it all the more disappointing that the Lyric Opera’s production, though beautifully staged and wonderfully sung, missed its swipe at the heartstrings.

The opera follows Violetta Valéry, a Parisian courtesan, as she falls for dashing country boy Alfredo Germont. Though the two live happily together, Violetta ultimately gives up the man she loves for the sake of his family honor. The shock shatters her fragile health: Her tuberculosis worsens, and she reunites with her lover only briefly before dying in his arms.

This all takes place on Riccardo Hernandez’s four gorgeous, minimalist sets. Aside from a few key pieces of furniture (a banquet table, for example), the stage is open, yet it does not seem bare. Cait O’Connor’s costumes set the tone of extravagance and idle luxury, especially in the party scenes. Violetta’s costume ball evokes a racy Versailles, complete with voluptuous beehive hairdos and sheeny tights—the hostess sports a skirt the size of a small sedan. In stark contrast, Violetta’s empty bedroom in the third act emphasizes her fallen state.

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka heads the cast as the consumptive courtesan. She plays a beautiful, vocally ravishing Violetta, with golden high notes and breathlessly agile coloratura. Rebeka nails the glitzy first act, soaring through her power aria “Sempre libera” with astonishing ease. In the second and third acts, however, her character comes off a bit thin. Rebeka’s Violetta is convincing, but it is difficult to sympathize with her. Her deathbed aria “Addio, del passato,” though soft and haunting, doesn’t really resonate emotionally.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey plays Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, a character that suffers strikingly from some ambiguity in the second act. Kelsey’s Giorgio initially appears cynical and manipulative when he confronts Violetta and implores her to give up his son. He expresses gratitude by pulling out what is presumably a check—a slap in the face both to Violetta and to the audience. However, the character is redeemed in his consolation aria to his son, “Di Provenza il mar.” Kelsey’s baritone is rich and genuine, with a warm, flawless upper register, making Giorgio’s sore loss of his son feel honest and convincing.

The true star among the cast is tenor Joseph Calleja, who shines as leading man Alfredo Germont. His characterization is spot-on: passionate but not overdone. Calleja has a thrilling, lusty voice, with clarion high notes and a virile middle register. The duet in the first act, “Un dì felice,” in which Alfredo confesses his love, showcases Calleja’s velvet sound and mastery of bel canto fireworks. I would have loved to hear him go even higher—think dazzling, Pavarotti-esque high Cs. I argue this on grounds of gender equality: If the soprano is allowed her high Cs, why shouldn’t the tenor have his?

Visually and musically sound, the Lyric’s La traviata engages but does not overwhelm. Maybe I just wasn’t as emotionally invested as I could’ve been, since the patrons in front of me wouldn’t stop coughing.

La Traviata will be playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago through December 20.