Opera

Review: Lyric’s La Traviata Offers Familiarity Through First-Rate Performances

As operas go, La Traviata is perhaps among the best known. Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation (with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave) of a play that itself was based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas premiered in Venice in 1853, and has since become one of the most popular productions in the canon. It bursts with everything audiences clamor for in these epic productions: sumptuous melodies for talented vocalists of every range; stirring chorus scenes where crinoline and coat tails abound; and a dramatic story of two star-crossed lovers who the world conspires against at every turn.

La Traviata

Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents this classic production, an update of their most recent staging in 2013 (then and now directed by Arin Arbus), that’s sure to be a crowd pleaser throughout its run (select dates through March 22), if only because the show is such a standby. Audiences that might skip the theater’s more obscure offerings will find the familiar melodies (you know the opening chorus number “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” by sound, if not by its Italian title) and stunning performances (soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Violetta is a revelation, as is Željko Lučić as Georgio) of La Traviata worth their time and disposable income. That the production as a whole doesn’t add up to the sum of these worthy parts is an unfortunate miscalculation in the alchemy that is theatrical productions.

The disconnect comes into stark relief in all that surrounds the talented cast delivering the memorable melodies. Each act sees us in a new locale (sets designed by Riccardo Hernandez), from courtesan Violetta’s Paris apartment in Act I to her country home and then a lush society party in Act II, and finally back to Violetta’s bedroom in Paris. Like a revolving door where the view changes at each turn, the sets seem confused as to how exactly we’re to perceive them: desolate and full of despair or rich and opulent in their adornments. The result is a mish-mash of approaches that work in some respects and falls desperately flat in others. The party scene in Act II, complete with larger-than-life puppets and evocative choreography (by Austin McCormick), is quite something to behold, as the chorus—and more hoop skirts than one can count—fills the stage.

Why then, is the lighting (designed by Marcus Doshi) in Violetta’s empty, cavernous bedroom in Act III so drastic as to cast overpowering shadows on a set that doesn’t appear designed for them? Bold choices such as this are certainly welcome (how else does one keep a 166-year-old opera fresh?), but they must also communicate something that adds to the production rather than distracts. It’s difficult to focus on Shagimuratova’s absolutely riveting delivery when the shadows cast from the set—a bed here, a chair there—seem strewn about on the blank walls behind her.

Though one wishes for every aspect of a production as familiar as La Traviata to be beyond reproach, it is perhaps enough that where it matters (the music, duh), this latest iteration from the Lyric more than compensates for the shortcomings. Michael Christie makes his Lyric debut as conductor, connecting the musicians and the singers in such beautiful harmony that one easily gets lost in the arias. Shagimuratova’s voice and acting more than fill the theater’s grand space, as her Violetta moves from what’s essentially a successful independent business woman to a domesticated lover, then on to a spurned one and finally a dying one. It’s a gripping journey, supported by male counterparts who know exactly who the star of the show is. Giorgio Berrugi (in his Lyric debut) as her lover Alfredo might not have her pipes, but he more than meets her in every moment of their shared, tormented love story.

As the cast, conductor and director accepted their standing ovation at Saturday night’s performance, it was a moment to reflect on not only the world-class productions (even in their missteps) Lyric brings to Chicago, but on the robust live theater scene throughout the city. Here were something like 3,000 opera fans dressed to the nines and gathered downtown on a cold February night for La Traviata. A few blocks away, another thousand or so keep Hamilton performing to sold-out crowds eight times a week even after two years. And within a three-mile radius, who knows how many touring, storefront, experimental and in-progress works are presented on any given night. It’s all a wonder, and that we have such options, such diverse and worthy experiences at our fingertips at all, is something to celebrate.

La Traviata is now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with select performances through March 22. Find a complete schedule and ticket information here.

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