By Bryson David Hoff
A beautiful young sex worker dying slowly of tuberculosis falls in love with an idealistic young man, but the expectations of their bourgeois society drive them apart, their tragic romance played out against the opulence of Paris’s Belle Époque.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because Screenwriter Baz Luhrmann copped the story in 2001, threw in some Beatles songs, and managed to get eight Academy Award nominations out of his Moulin Rouge. Given the perennial popularity of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata amongst opera companies across the world, however, it’s hard to blame him.
Verdi’s romantic tragedy centers on Parisian courtesan Violetta (soprano Albina Shagimuratova), whose whirlwind romance with a young nobleman (tenor Giorgio Berrugi) causes problems with the man’s family. Ultimately, she is forced to choose between allowing her love for him to ruin his life or to return to her self-destructive lifestyle in order to allow him to continue. It’s all a bit melodramatic, but then again, this is opera.
Shagimuratova quite rightfully shined over the majority of her castmates. While there are no particularly weak links per se, the leading lady is noticeably in a class of her own. Appropriately, the only other singer who seems to be in her league is baritone Željko Lučić, as the villainous Giorgio. The pair’s scene in the second act is a high water mark in both vocal and dramatic ability and is easily the highlight of the evening.
Special mention goes to the scenic design of Riccardo Hernandez. Rather than becoming indulgent with the aesthetic of the setting, Hernandez makes marvelous use of the negative space, constantly reminding the audience of the character’s internal isolation. It is a testament to his mastery that his designs manage to so subtly yet perfectly evoke the feeling of being alone in a crowded room. He also seems quite keenly aware of how much the repeating floral patterns in 19th century wallpaper start to resemble demonic faces if you look at them long enough.
Director Arin Arbus’s staging is also to be commended. Her resumé shows her to be primarily a director of traditional drama and she takes a similar tack with her opera staging, favoring realistic action and blocking rather than a presentational style that would detract from the personal drama that is meat of the story. The aforementioned scene between Violetta and Giorgio, for instance, resembles in style nothing so much as a scene from Ibsen or Chekov and is more powerful for it.
In short, the Lyric’s La Traviata is a solid evening’s entertainment for opera lovers. There’s enough interesting design work to set this production apart and any opportunity to hear Shagimuratova sing should be reason enough to buy a ticket.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents La Traviata at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through March 22. Tickets may be purchased at http://www.lyricopera.org. Photo from Lyric Opera of Chicago by Todd Rosenberg.