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Houston Grand Opera's La Traviata Never Catches Fire

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The setup:

Giuseppe Verdi's operatic masterpiece about life and love in the demimonde of 19th-century Paris, while tastefully sung in HGO's production, never fires up the necessary abandon nor the great passion needed to set this work aflame. We start dry-eyed, we stay that way.

The execution:

Borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, the production is no beauty, one of veteran stage designer Desmond Heeley's off works. Faded and musty-colored, it looks covered in dust. We're supposed to be inside Violetta's fevered dream. (We know this because during Verdi's ethereal prelude, Violetta, on her deathbed divan, is haunted by her ghostly doppelganger.) Throughout the work, whenever Violetta is wracked by coughs or stricken by some fatal premonition, she is plagued by this ghost lady holding out a camellia blossom. Making the opera a dream might work for the prelude, but carrying the cliché throughout is mighty ineffective.

Doesn't Violetta have any happy dreams? And why does Act III's party scene seem to be Alfredo's dream? He's pinned in the spotlight at the end of the second act and starts Act III in the same position. A director's concept can kill an opera faster than a poor singer. Meanwhile, the chorus is doing the slo-mo boogie in the background like bad Fellini outtakes. Aren't we degenerate, they hiss. See us writhe.

Coming up through the ranks of HGO's studio program, soprano Albina Shagimuratova, like mezzo Joyce DiDonato, is a success story and house favorite. A natural coloratura, she can blaze through signature roles like Mozart's treacherously thrilling Queen of the Night in Magic Flute or early Verdi's warbler Gilda in Rigoletto. She can toss off high Fs with flawless technique, silkily maneuvering through rollercoaster roulades as if skiing blindfolded.

There's no denying the beauty of her voice, even though the coloring of it hardly varies. But as an actress who's supposed to draw a dramatic character, she's a bit of a dull pencil. Verdi demands a complete person. A prodigious voice wows us, but Violetta must move us. Shagimuratova clumps about heavily, throws her arms up in dramatic gestures, and even rolls down the stairs in a sick fit, but there's not a moment we believe.

Violetta's lover Alfredo fares better. Tenor Bryan Hymel was thrown into this drab production a little over a week ago when tenor David Lomeli fell ill. Hymel has done a tremendous job; Brad Chad Shelton will take over for the show's final performances. Hymel has a clean, open sound, a real throwback to the voices of the '50s, like Mario Del Monaco. He sings like a real guy.

Verdi and librettist Piave fashioned Dumas's tale into a classic triangle. Violetta is the apex, and Alfredo and his father Germont share the base. It's Germont who, as bastion of middle-class morality, sets the plot in motion by convincing Violetta to give up Alfredo. While baritone Giovanni Meoni is always deeply expressive, specially in the lilting barcarole "Di Provenza," he still seems a decade too young to be Hymel's father.

The verdict:

Verdi's masterpiece as presented by HGO, while not definitive, is worthy of attention. It's still Verdi, after all, and that's singing a mouthful.

Verdi's 1853 masterpiece about love gone terribly wrong plays through February 12 at Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. To purchase tickets go online at www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA.

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