Verdi's Passion

For better or for worse, the title of Verdi's beloved melodrama La Traviata makes a virtually untranslatable mouthful: "The woman who has gone astray." That it is rarely translated is probably just as well. Nowadays, with its connotation of sexual misdeed, the phrase "go astray" can hardly be used without eliciting a smirk. (Although perhaps, in this decade of the victim, there is still room for "led astray.")

Violetta, the towering heroine of the masterpiece now in a production by the Houston Grand Opera, takes full responsibility for her tragedy. When, on her deathbed, she refers to herself as "traviata," it is tantamount to a confession of sin. But what constitutes her sin? The fact that at one time she is not exactly a prostitute or a courtesan, but a member of the free-and-easy demi-monde? That she returns the love of the innocent Alfredo Germont, even knowing that the relationship is doomed? That she lets Alfredo's father, Giorgio, talk her into leaving Alfredo for his own supposed good? The opera supports all these views.

As a "fallen" woman and a Parisian to boot, Violetta is understandably less religious than many a Verdi heroine. But religious overtones abound nonetheless. On her deathbed Violetta takes comfort in the ministrations of a priest, and when a contrite Alfredo rushes to her side, she suggests that they give thanks by going to church.

In the course of this heart-rending deathbed scene comes a shattering irony: revelers at a carnival can be heard outside her window. Lent is around the corner, and we are indeed witnessing a kind of passion, as Violetta's death redeems Alfredo of his arrogance and Giorgio of his cruelty -- Alfredo can go on to love another woman, and Giorgio can reconcile matters with his son and with himself. The opera repeatedly refers to Violetta's "sacrifice."

We even witness a kind of resurrection as Violetta rises from her deathbed. This surge of strength before death might be a fact of medical science, but 19th-century audiences would also have understood it as the first perceptions of celestial joy. Like Camille, the heroine of the Dumas novel on which Verdi based his opera, Violetta is the name of a flower. Thus La Traviata is something of a rite of spring, touching the oldest of feelings despite its most "modern" trappings.

The Houston Grand Opera production has many of the ingredients for a superior rendition of the work. As Violetta, Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel has a strong, rich, sometimes even ravishing voice. The wild "she-doth-protest-too-much" abandon (complete with smashed glass) with which she sings "Sempre libera" wonderfully suggests, as not every soprano can, a character in conflict. And her poignant and haunting portrayal of the dying Violetta carries conviction.

Martin Thompson, youthful in voice and appearance, gives Alfredo a welcome freshness that more seasoned tenors cannot achieve; like Villarroel, however, he had a tendency to go flat. As Giorgio, Paolo Gavanelli turned in a natural, sensitive performance, often quite touching in its understatement. Even the smaller roles -- especially Elizabeth Jones' Flora and Jill Grove's Annina -- had integrity.

Desmond Heeley's striking set designs recall French painting of the 19th century. Violetta's salon, dominated by chandeliers and candelabras, is a rich canvas of gold, green, red and purple. Her salon is ingeniously rearranged to become Flora's, featuring red, black and orange (though why the gypsy dancers should be wearing mantillas escapes me). Such vibrant colors make the blue-and-white starkness of Violetta's deathbed scene all the more remarkable.

The staging, by Harry Silverstein, is effectively unobtrusive. Taking advantage of a few moments of music without words in the last act, he ingeniously introduces a pantomime that portrays Violetta's delirious recollection of her humiliation at the hands of Alfredo.

Even if it didn't actually come to nothing, though, all this fine work was at least undercut, once again, by the lackluster conducting of Vjekoslav Sutej. Inspiration came only in fits and starts. Though the accompaniment to Violetta's outpouring of love before she leaves Alfredo did have warmth and nobility, for the most part the conducting lacked style -- the phrases wanted shaping, the ubiquitous waltz rhythms sounded stiff and mechanical. The purely instrumental sections seemed particularly pedestrian. It's regrettable not to make better use of the beautiful sounding Houston Symphony Orchestra.

Houston Grand Opera's La Traviata runs through May 1 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-


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