"Traviata": misguided girl, led astray, leading a dissipated life. Verdi´s "La Traviata": one of a handful of super-hit operas. Almost no season goes by without a staging with orchestra in Buenos Aires or La Plata, plus those semiprofessional efforts with piano where young singers make their tryouts. This year the Ensamble Lírico Orquestal took up the challenge for three Sunday afternoons with two casts at the Auditorio de Belgrano.
Some years ago I had the chance of reading in French the original novel by Alexandre Dumas Fils "La Dame aux Camélias" ("The Lady of the Camelias"). Markedly autobiographical, Dumas in his elegant prose explains in much detail the lives of these very expensive kept girls only affordable to aristocratic lovers with huge fortunes.
Their life was very public; they threw expensive parties, showed off ever renewed fashion clothes and went often to the Paris Opera. Their promiscuity often led to venereal disease or tuberculosis, then called consumption (the Koch bacillus hadn´t been discovered yet).
Giuseppe Verdi saw in it an opportunity to do something truly new: an opera on a contemporary subject. It was indeed a rather astonishing change from the habitual libretti about events on far-off times. But even in the edulcorated libretto by Francesco Piave, where the most audacious words words are "to enjoy" and "pleasure", it proved too much for the Austrian censure and Verdi was forced to accept a première with the action put back in the early XVIIIth Century, which anyway had a well-earned licentious reputation. Only later was he allowed to bring the opera to his time.
So this was a revolutionary opera for that period (1853). Nowadays anything goes, and we are in an a-historical state of mind; but try to imagine the impact of a compassionate story about a high-class prostitute in love for the first time, just when her illness is becoming terminal, confronted with the father of Alfredo, who represents the self-righteousness bourgeois mentality and finds in her a threat to the family.
Anyway, it became an immense success. Verdi´s music was and is magnificent, and the story continues to move audiences.
Before I go on, two intriguing questions: a) why Violetta´s lovers aren´t struck by the same contagious illness?; b) was Germont being cynical or silly when he doesn´t seem to hear her confession that she is dying? For in fact the problem would soon be solved by death.
I empathize with the people of the ELO (Ensamble Lírico Orquestal). They are professional, hard-working and sincere. However, both last year and now they chose operas that are surefire whilst in other seasons they offered such novelties as Respighi´s "Sleeping Beauty" ("La Bella addormentata nel bosco") and Verdi´s "Un giorno di regno".
Although their denomination leads one to believe that it is just an opera company, their Artistic Coordinator Gustavo Codina considers ELO as a group that can also offer orchestral and choral-orchestral concerts. And this year after "La Traviata" they have programmed a Mozart session featuring the Requiem Mass and a Slav concert with music of Dvorák and Tchaikovsky among others.
There were three performances of "La Traviata" with two casts; I saw the last one, with the first cast. ELO last year presented "Carmen" eliminating four rows of the stalls and placing the orchestra in the cleaned-up space; it worked well acoustically and visually, and this year they did the same. A 41-strong orchestra of good level played there under the sensitive and knowledgeable conducting of Dante Ranieri, who as an ex-tenor has a natural feel for the needs of the singers. Just one cavil: the short Carnival chorus in the last act was done a cappella, but it should have off-stage instruments. And a detail: the baritone cabaletta, rarely done, was included.
There was a big choir on stage (71 singers), though I would have preferred a smaller one; the placing of part of it on the stalls´ right side for the First Act felt artificial. Called the Coral Ensamble, they were well prepared by Codina and sung with enthusiasm.
María José Dulín coped well with Violetta from the Second Act to the last, for she is expressive and a good actress, but "Sempre libera" showed her uncomfortable and rather strident. Nevertheless the final result is certainly positive. Fermín Prieto´s voice is weak in the moments of expansion, though he phrases with taste and sings softly when required. Fernando Santiago as Germont is more a character baritone than a lyric one such as the part needs; however, he sang with authority and played a stern Father.
In the smaller parts, Nora Balanda was a disinvolt Flora, Vanina de Bonis a tasteful and slim Annina, Cristian Taleb a matinée-idol Gastone, Leonardo Menna a dour and rather young Douphol, Fernando Grassi a firm D´Obigny and Alejandro Di Nardo an authoritative Grenvil.
As happened last year with "Carmen", Raúl Marego –bless him- presented a simple and natural "Traviata". With an agreeable unit set by Daniel Feijóo that works well for the first Three Acts, nice costumes by Mariela Daga and correct lighting by Ernesto Bechara, the staging was unexceptionable. Even the choreography by Margarita Fernández and the dancing of the two choruses at the beginning of the Third Act were quite pleasant and well done.
As happens sometimes, the total result was greater than the sum of its parts.
For Buenos Aires Herald