Viva Verdi

Tales abound for why Verdi's debut of La Traviata in Venice was a dismal failure. Some point to a lackluster response to its contemporary setting during his time (1850s). This is inaccurate, though, since the show was set in the 1700s. Others blame it on the too-plump soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, who, poorly cast as the sickly Violetta Valery, made the audience laugh during her tragic death scene. Music professor David Kent debunks that myth, using the memoir of Felice Varesi, the original baritone who played Georgio Germont, father of Violetta's lover, Alfredo. Simply put, Verdi wrote his arias without much thought to the vocal talents of his singers.

Had that first Venetian audience heard the fine principal cast that opened Houston Grand Opera's new production, they'd have gone home happy -- happy in spite of the disturbing, period-free backdrops that preclude a taste of the ideals or mores of 19th-century Paris. And despite the illogical stage movements (blocking) of Act II and the overdone licentiousness of the Mardi Gras carousing. Still, these experiments seldom detract from the magic of the arias and ensembles. Accompanied by HGO's new music director, Patrick Summers, and the Houston Symphony, the vocal and dramatic interpretations of the leads are sumptuously sound and complex.

Based on the heroine of Alexander Dumas's play La Dame aux Camelias ("Camille"), Violetta is a courtesan plagued by consumption and wooed by Alfredo into abandoning her easy, destructive lifestyle to share his healthier one. When his father, Giorgio Germont, pressures Violetta to end her affair or risk sullying Alfredo's family reputation, she sacrifices her lover, the chance for true love, and possibly recovery.

American soprano Patricia Racette understands the poignancy of the virtuous mistress deprived of the genuine love she richly deserves. Violetta's lovable duality, seen in her immoderate ways and eagerness to risk changing those ways, is expertly expressed through Racette's command of myriad singing styles. Her facile, immense range glides from the softest of whispers to a heart-rending coloratura that's never too deep or shrill. She interprets Violetta's trademark aria, Sempre Libera ("Always Free"), with an unprecedented bittersweet subtlety belying the carefree mood and flippancy of the lyrics.

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Racette's duet partners, Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Alfredo Germont and Russian baritone Vassily Gerello as the elder Germont, bring smooth command to their roles. HGO audiences saw Vargas play the wry poet Hoffmann in Tales of Hoffmann last fall. Although Hoffmann and La Traviata both deal in the disappointments of love, Vargas's gifts as a tenor seem better suited to the innocent exuberance that draws him to an ill-timed affair with a fallen woman. Like Racette, his voice is honey-sweet and never overbearing, particularly during De'Miei Bollenti Spiriti ("All My Exalted Fantasy") and in "Sempre Libera," when it filters from behind stage.

Gerello, a regular at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky theater, plays the formidable, meddling authority in Germont. In the popular Di Provenza il Mar, il Suol ("Can Your Heart Be Dead and Cold"), a lovely duet with Vargas, he's outstanding. At times, though, stage director Christopher Alden's hokey blocking distracts from his round, rich baritone. When Germont drops in unannounced on Violetta (Act II, Scene 1) and insists she end her affair with his son, one usually expects him to keep her at arm's length. As Violetta becomes hysterical, Germont asks her to calm down and eventually moves to embrace her. Alden's staging of this scene seems all wrong. He has Germont accepting her refusal to break up with Alfredo just before turning and starting to walk out the door. This tacit acknowledgement is then illogically followed by his appeal for her to calmly hear him out after he turns around and walks back in. Later, as they reasonably discuss things, he's pawing her on the bed.

At other moments, Alden's unusual movements work well to evoke an atypically dark rendering of Violetta's tragedy. When Racette sometimes falls against Paul Steinberg's hauntingly garish, flower-splattered backdrops, she appears desperate and touched by the lunacy of her situation. During these numbers her acting is unexcelled. Having her rise out of bed later and walk off stage in a pure white shroud is an inspiring variation on tired, gasping death throes. Only it didn't make sense for her, undoubtedly virtuous, to walk toward the bright lights and cacophonous partygoers at the rear of the stage.

Violetta's story may have been a bit racy for the audiences of Verdi's day, but it makes no sense to debauch her world as severely as in Act II, Scene II. Verdi's heroine is no Bourbon Street floozy, nor is she a bordello madam whose carpets stink of booze and stumbling patrons. Accented by Flora's titillating movements -- while nicely done by Houston Opera Studio mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek -- the depravity of this scene seems excessive. It will be cut, I'm told, when the alternate cast performs the show for area high schools.

Beyond this scene and some confused blocking, Alden's darker purpose for this production brings a meaningful change. From the voices of Racette, Vargas and Gerello, Verdi's music will always be loved by his die-hard fans, no matter how experimental the staging.

La Traviata runs through February 21 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Ave., (713)227-

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