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‘La Traviata’ Suffers From Tepid Staging, Chemistry

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (in English, a close approximation would mean “the fallen woman”) was based on Alexandre Dumas the younger’s La Dame aux Camellias , the story of Violetta, a consumptive courtesan who falls deeply in love with a young man , Alfredo. She renounces him at the behest of his father Giorgio, who is concerned that their affair will besmirch the family reputation, but is later reunited with Alfredo just before she dies. What could be more dramatic or operatic than the story of an all-consuming but doomed love affair?

Opera North’s production of one of the most popular and frequently performed in the opera repertoire, which opened on Tuesday, doesn’t live up to Verdi’s premise, however. The principals are talented, but the stage direction by Mark Astafan is oddly listless throughout, particularly between the two lovers. Does it matter that the stage direction is somewhat stilted, even if the singing is good, and on occasion, much better than good?

It does when you’re directing the story of two ardent lovers who cannot bear to be parted from one another. This isn’t just a random affair, it’s a grand passion. Yet the two lead principals, Angela Mortellaro as Violetta and Yeghishe Manucharyan as Alfredo, too often sing standing or sitting apart from one another, on opposite sides of the stage, bodies and hands unmoving, as if they were in separate universes.

Violetta has been transformed by her love for Alfredo; she has a great hunger for him, but she also knows she’s dying. The stakes could not be greater, so why do their scenes together seem to show so little urgency, so little heat? The two lovers should be touching, embracing. They should be alive with desire and happiness, and when they quarrel and separate they should radiate anguish and hurt. That doesn’t happen here, which is a nearly fatal flaw. So their singing and acting too often feels muted and removed, rather than incandescent.

The producers have made another decision that is puzzling. The opera is set in the 19th century, but has been updated to the 1950s or 1960s. Sometimes revisionism can work brilliantly, by sharpening m aterial that has begun to seem shopworn. Last year’s Opera North production of Lucia di Lammermoor , which translated the visceral hatred between clans in 17th century Scotland to the visceral antagonism between North and South in the American Civil War, is a case in point.

Perhaps Astafan meant to draw a parallel between the moral censoriousness of the 19th century and the 1950s, when a woman’s “reputation” could be ruined by charges of promiscuity. But while tuberculosis was endemic during the 19th century, with no cure, antibiotics to combat TB had been introduced in Western Europe after World War II, which raises a question for this production: Why would Violetta be dying in 1950s or 1960s Paris from a disease that could be treated?

Is this too picayune a point? It might be if I’d wholeheartedly believed in the love story. But when there’s a big hole at the center of the production, such inconsistencies appear more glaring.

Mortellaro, who was sensational in last year’s Opera North production of Lucia di Lammermoor , seemed a little off her game at the beginning of Traviata . Violetta is a songbird in a gilded cage, and the trilling runs that Verdi gives her should sound at once as natural and as intricate as a bird giving voice at dawn. But Mortellaro sounded quite strained as she hit the high notes. Manucharyan’s top notes also sounded tight early on. But both singers relaxed vocally as the opera continued, and their final scenes together, as Violetta is dying, were all the more affecting for their quietness. It may well be that such Opening Night hiccups will be resolved in later performances. (On another note, the microphones that were present for My Fair Lady were not there for Traviata , which is as it should be).

Because this is Verdi, there are always consolations. No one, with the exception of Mozart, wrote more masterfully for trios, quartets and the chorus than Verdi. The pleasure in listening to them is hearing how Verdi built in a musical tension that tightens and slackens as voices join together and pull apart, and come together again.

The Opera North chorus distinguishes itself in this regard, as do Mortellaro, Manucharyan and Anton Belov, who plays Giorgio Germond, in the trios they are given to sing. And conductor Domenico Boyoagian is sensitive to the nuances of the score, bringing out the exuberance of Verdi’s melodic waltzing in the scenes set in the Parisian demimonde, as well as the ominous, antic tremolo of the strings as Violetta’s tuberculosis progresses to its inevitable end.

La Traviata continues on Aug. 9, 15 and 20 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, go to operanorth.org or call the Lebanon Opera House Box Office at 603-448-0100.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.