The question: To be or not to be faithful to the original setting of an opera is known to evoke passions as intense as those expressed by the originalists fighting with the rest of us who think the Constitution should be a living document. OK, so maybe the numbers at the battlefronts are not of equal proportion. The fact remains: Marta Domingo’s production of “La Traviata,” currently on view at the Music Center, is a definite win for the revisionist forces. She has moved “La Traviata” from its mid-19th century demimonde setting to the flapper days of the Roaring Twenties.
As a revisionist, I should be happy. No? Often an updated setting illustrates the timelessness of operatic themes obscured by dated costumes and heavily ornate sets. Domingo’s production is rich with flapper costumes, all right, the contemplation of which clearly caught the fancy of many of the glittering opening-night attendees, who caught the spirit in their after-the-opera-gala attire. It was really quite festive. But costumes alone do not an opera make.
Let us not get sidetracked by the details of the production. Instead, let us start with the good news. The score, need I remind you, is glorious. Verdi’s familiar themes glide gorgeously out from James Conlon’s baton. We spoiled Los Angeles audiences have grown to expect nothing less from our resident conductor. Plácido (Giorgio Germont) — his long and generous association with the LA Opera, first as artistic director, then as general director, has led many Angelinos to think of Domingo on a first name basis — continues to fascinate and please with his full, rich baritone. Soprano Nino Machaidze is performing her first ever Violetta. It is a coloratura role, and she brings an outstanding, shimmering brilliance in the demanding and robust first act. Being robust comes easily to her; with experience, it is hoped she will gain the subtlety required to negotiate sadness. Divas, as you surely have noticed, are regularly required to die while simultaneously projecting frailty and glorious tones. At this point, her singing lacks that range of color. There is no reason to doubt that it, too, will come for this accomplished 31-year-old soprano.
Now for the tough part. There is no getting around the fact that setting “La Traviata” in the 1920s neither illuminates nor elucidates the story. It is a stretch to see the 19th century courtesans and Roaring Twenties flappers as equivalents. Superficially you could say both were expressions of women lacking options in a misogynistic world. They used their charms and allure while they lasted. More importantly, the courtesans used their talents to gain footing, wealth, and power in a world they were denied by class. The flappers were generally upper-class women. In the U.S., mindless of the struggle their mothers had waged to gain the vote less than a decade before, they blithely were awash in Prohibition-era excess.
OK, there is no denying that the clothes of the flappers may have an edge over mid-19th century drapery. Peabody Southwell (Flora), in particular, vamped up her roll as the courtesan running the hot salon in Paris and was a delight to hear and watch. But the Act II return of Violetta to Flora’s salon, with dancers miming the Charleston and supernumeraries pantomiming jazz musicians to Verdi, did not work. It simply pointed up the flaws in the production. And while we are at it: The twirling mirrored ball that periodically was blinding to the audience did not denote the opulence that generally conveys the story. The set is bare-boned and lacking in genuine style. Perhaps if director Marta Domingo had paid as much attention to directing the singers as she did to the costumes, the effect would have been more convincing. As it was, the difference in acting ability was striking. Domingo (husband of Marta), Southwell, and Soloman Howard (Doctor Grenvil) have it naturally, but others, namely Machaidze and her tenor, Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Alfredo Germont) could have used some help.
So where does that leave us? I would say go for the music. It is glorious, and you will not be disappointed in the singing. When Machaidze is on, she is terrific. But be it resolved, if a director is going to follow the revisionist path, he or she should make sure the updating of the production makes sense.