Originally adapted by Giuseppe Verdi in 1853 from a play, La Dame aux Camélias, which itself had been adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name, La Traviata is beyond canonical. In fact, it is one of the most beloved and frequently performed operas of all time.
Familiar as the material may be, Michelle Krisel, general director for Ash Lawn Opera, promises the production, a collaboration with The Oratorio Society of Virginia, at the Paramount on Friday (and Sunday) will be fresh and rife with tasteful innovation.
“I am particularly interested in genesis from the story of the actual Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, to the novel and then the play [and, finally,] Verdi’s opera,” says Krisel.
That angle has factored heavily in ALO’s adaptation, and Krisel will present preshow lectures on what she describes as the “fascinating and heartbreaking transformation.”
This will be the second time that the Oratorio Society and Ash Lawn Opera have combined their creative teams. The first was in 2014 for a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, which showcased both organizations.
“Having a chorus the size of the Oratorio Society (more than 80 singers for this production), means having an ensemble at least twice the size of a normal opera chorus, which creates a special sound and power for the great choral moments in La Traviata,” says Oratorio Society Music Director Michael Slon. “And working with ALO brings the joy of collaborating with the wonderful soloists and directors with whom they’re connected—so in these ways, and many others, the collaboration allows both organizations to produce artistic work they could never create on their own.”
The process of putting a unique spin on such a well-known classic isn’t the easiest thing to do. Artistically speaking, there is a certain tension resulting from the form’s requisite traditionalism and the drive to make it new.
“Directing an opera is a lot like directing Shakespeare,” says La Traviata Director Mary Birnbaum. “You’re dealing with themes that are universal and enormous and each production of a masterpiece [has] a particular flavor to it—an interpretation of those themes that’s highly subjective and aestheticized in some way.”
There will always be the effects of decisions such as who’s cast, where actors are placed on the stage, how those actors interact with one another, the treatment of various chronologies of plot, costume design, lighting and so on. For Birnbaum, even in the most conservative of presentations, these factors result in a production that cannot help but deviate from the original. With this in mind, she asserts the more “truthful” approach is going after the spirit of a work.
“I use the Shakespeare analogy for Verdi because, with Verdi, every note has a dramatic function and all of it is profoundly meaningful,” Birnbaum says. “Verdi was one of the greatest operatic dramatists, which is why his work is so frequently performed.”
It is the notion of universality that inspired Krisel and Birnbaum to present La Traviata in a different manner than the norm. Beyond the biographical and histories informing the work’s various adaptations, of particular importance was the nature of Violetta Valéry, the opera’s lead role.
“What makes Violetta Valéry so exceptionally modern is the complexity of her principles and the choice she faces,” says Birnbaum. “It’s a choice that we all have to confront at some point: Whether to commit to the uncertainty of intimate love or to hold tight to hard-won freedom.”
Indeed, from the vantage of 1851, for Violetta, the most popular and well-supported courtesan, the choice to pursue a monogamous romance with Alfredo, a member of the provincial bourgeois, was a monumental sacrifice.
“In 2016, this choice remains just as daunting for anyone who values [her] liberty,” claims Birnbaum. “The question becomes: Is it possible to ascertain the value of devotional love over the thrill of always doing exactly what you want?”
For Violetta, who is dying of tuberculosis, the stakes posed by Birnbaum’s questions are infinitely higher: Her time is running out.
“I think what you hear in Verdi’s score is his unmatched ability to translate emotional drama and timing into orchestral color, rhythmic drive and especially expressive (and memorable) vocal writing for the soloists and chorus,” says Slon.
In order to highlight the dramatic immediacy of Verdi’s masterpiece, Krisel chose to have Birnbaum put the opera on semi-staged.
“I think what’s going to be special about this production is that the bare-bones nature of the set and costumes is really going to emphasize the intimacy of the story and the beautiful character study that is at the center of the piece,” says Birnbaum. “Traviata is one of those pieces that speaks so directly to the human heart.”
While a focus on minimalism might seem contradictory to the lavish, baroque nature of the operatic form, Krisel says it all will be counterbalanced.
“The Paramount is perfectly suited to accommodate the orchestra in the pit, the nearly 100 choristers on risers at the back of the stage, scenic projections above the choristers and the soloists and props toward the front of the stage,” says Krisel. “With the theater’s excellent sightlines and acoustics, the audience will feel deeply and intimately involved in the story and music. So it’s really going to be an immersive experience.”
In conjunction with The Oratorio Society of Virginia, Ash Lawn Opera presents La Traviata at The Paramount Theater.
Ash Lawn Opera
“I use the Shakespeare analogy for Verdi because, with Verdi, every note has a dramatic function and all of it is profoundly meaningful,” says Mary Birnbaum. “Verdi was one of the greatest operatic dramatists, which is why his work is so frequently performed.” —Eric J. Wallace