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REVIEW: Everything Wrong with Minnesota Opera’s La Traviata

The famous Brindisi scene in Minnesota Opera’s production of La Traviata, which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN. Photo by Dan Norman.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two reviews looking at Minnesota Opera’s production of La Traviata, which opened on Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. As part of this experiment, Basil Considine explores the same show from two different perspectives: a focused critique of the artistic vision and implementation, and a more straightforward review of the audience experience. 

There are some productions that I see and think, “Good idea, worse execution.” There are others that I see and think, “That was misguided.” The latter usually results from trying to make a piece something that it is not, often with the best of intentions. The quintessential thing wrong with Minnesota Opera’s new production of La Traviata is that it tries to make Verdi’s opera something that it is not.

It’s become de rigeur of late for directors to try and “rescue” operas from the canon. The devil is in the details, there: you can edit a few lines and shade a scene in different ways, but Bizet’s Carmen will never really be Carmen if the protagonist is alive at the end. You can write your own version where that happens and call it The Triumph of Carmen, but at that point it’s a fundamentally different work and in my professional opinion should be titled as such. This production of La Traviata tries to make the opera into something more like Puccini’s La Rondine and, to quote Muller’s Director’s Notes, present Violetta as “a truly modern heroine”. Neither goal is successful.

Nicole Cabell (center) as Violetta, surrounded by an entourage of admirers. Photo by Dan Norman,

Does Violetta Need Laurey’s Dream Ballet?

The first indication that things are off is when the curtain rises during the Prelude, revealing Violetta [Editor’s note: No singers’ performances are examined in this review – check back tomorrow for the performance-focused partner review.] dancing with herself, struggling to open a champagne bottle, and coughing. This sequence and its follow-up show things that do not need to shown, in ways that undermine the storytelling and rob the carefully written twists, turns, and revelations in the libretto of their necessary impact. The best way to experience these dance preludes is to simply close your eyes during them – they add nothing, but take away much.

Downward Lighting, What Downward Lighting?

A second indication that things are off is the lighting used in Act I and Act II, Scene 2. The party scenes are illuminated from low angles (the instruments are located in the pit), creating massive shadows that loom distractingly over the singers and leave much of the on-stage action surprisingly dark. It’s an odd decision without a clear rationale, and an unkind one to the older eyes in the theatre. Making singers be upstaged by their own shadows is likewise unwelcome – especially since the lighting in Act II, Scene 1 and Act III showed that all the necessary instruments to balance the illumination were already in place and available.

Why might this have been the case? One rationale might have been to recall the oil and gas footlights of the early 19th century, which would be an odd attempt at historicity given some other liberties taken. If I had to speculate, I would venture that the intent was to cast these scenes as tragic foreshadowing – telegraphing that is rather unnecessary, given Violetta’s vocal remarks on her dizzy spells and coughing. A little bit more overhead lighting would have been a strong improvement.

A meet-the-family moment does not go well between Violetta Valéry (Nicole Cabell) and Giorgio Germont (Joo Won Kang). Photo by Dan Norman.

Words, What Words?

At opening night, conductor Christopher Franklin committed a cardinal sin in opera: his orchestra covered up the singing. The result was an auditory mush – pretty, but with even the simplest words and phrases hard to make out. You might object that most of the St. Paul audience does not speak Italian, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in hearing the nuances in how words are spoken and sung. In fact, audibility is an essential part of received meaning, especially when much of the opera has characters hiding things that are hinted in their words and the sound of their voices.

This particular problem was unexpected; hearing the words is not normally a problem when Minnesota Opera performs in the Ordway’s Music Theater. What’s more, several of the featured singers make regular appearances on this particular stage. This suggests that responsibility belongs somewhere off-stage. Whether the cause was a failure to compensate for a set that did not reflect sound well, or poor communication about how the show sounded in the hall, the result was suboptimal – and clearly something that should have been worked out in rehearsal.

Excuse Me, A Duel?

If you encountered La Traviata for the first time on Saturday, you probably would have been surprised to find Violetta reading a letter about Alfredo’s duel with Barone Douphol – nothing in the staging of Act II, Scene 2 showed the actual challenge, and the portrayal hinted at the opposite result. Several opportunities in the score to stage this were simply ignored (and some language toned down in the supertitles), adding unnecessary confusion where a few seconds of staging would have cleared things up.

The Rest

I could go on to discuss the significant factual errors in the program notes, anachronisms in the costumes, and other points, but the larger question is “Was it an enjoyable experience?” The answer is “Yes, but not as much as expected.” For an exploration of this production’s good traits, come back tomorrow.

Unity of time and space? Prop money from Act II, Scene II remains strewn on the floor in Act III, which according to the program synopsis takes place “a few months later”. At least it wasn’t a disposable coffee cup in Game of Thrones.
Pictured: Jesús León as Alfredo Germont, Nicole Cabell as Violetta Valéry, and Joo Won Kang as Giorgio Germont. Photo by Dan Norman.

Minnesota Opera’s production of La Traviata plays through May 19. Cast A, including Nicole Cabell as Violetta, Jesús León as Alfredo, and Joo Won Kang as Giorgio, performs May 9, 11, 14, and 19. Cast B, including Cecilia Violetta López as Violetta, Stephen Martin as Alfredo, and Youngjoo An as Giorgio, performs May 12, 16, and 18.

Basil Considine