“The human conflicts in it are universal and applicable to almost any time,” says Atlanta Opera Music Director Arthur Fagen, who will conduct performances of the classic at the Cobb Energy Center April 27-May 5. “The drama of ‘Traviata’ is really quite remarkable. It requires a tremendous amount of work from the soloists, the conductor and the stage director. It has beautiful vocal writing, and that’s what brings the public to ‘La Traviata.’”
The new co-production was created by the Atlanta Opera in collaboration with Washington National Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, Seattle Opera and Indiana University. It premiered at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. in last October.
Based on the 1852 play “La Dame aux camélias,” which was itself adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils, “La Traviata” tells the story of a beautiful Parisian courtesan who makes a final sacrifice for love as she faces a fatal illness.
Unifying the dramatic and vocal aspects of “La Traviata” is crucial to bringing any production alive, Fagen says. “As a bel canto opera, it needs to be sung with certain stylistic parameters, very beautifully,” he says. “But It should never degenerate only into a vocal showcase. The drama has to be there on an equal plane really.”
For this production, director Francesca Zambello decided to move the action in time to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century.
“The silhouette for the ladies is sleeker and in some ways, a little bit more pleasing to the modern eye,” says costume designer Jess Goldstein, who was tasked with creating a new look for the fashionable lead character, Violetta. “The first thing we looked at in terms of research and inspiration was John Singer Sargent’s ‘Portrait of Madame X.’” The famous painting of an elegant, turn-of-the-century woman in a strapless black gown informed the design for Violetta’s dark plum satin dress in the opera’s opening party scene.
In all, Goldstein designed about 130 costumes for the production. “Each act in the opera is a very different mood and I wanted to do a different color palette for each act, which would help convey the different atmosphere,” he says. “Making beautiful dresses is, in some ways, the easiest thing for a designer to do. There’s a wealth of research to go to.”
Designing clothes that singers can move in is one of the new challenges for opera costume designers, says Goldstein. The days when singers stood in one spot in layers of hoop-skirts and crinoline are over. In this production, Violetta jumps out of a sick bed, removes a hospital gown and steps into a party from her memory in full evening dress. Later on, Violetta and her love Alfredo dance on a table. Designing sleek, modern clothes that allowed for movement was key, Goldstein says.
“It’s a fascinating opera,” says tenor Mario Chang, who will make his Atlanta Opera debut as Alfredo. “The way I approach the role is as if I’m telling the story. At the beginning you have to play a dreamer and show his love, his excitement, his impatience. This character has to change in the second act, in one scene. When you change, you have to feel hate in an instant.” Manifesting the many different aspects of the character in different acts is crucial to the role, he says.
Czech-born coloratura soprano Zuzana Marková has performed Violetta all across Europe, but will be making her American debut with the Atlanta Opera.
“I’m surprised how strong Violetta is,” she says of the character. “In very difficult moments, when she is very close to a total emotional collapse, she doesn’t betray the word she gave to Germont. At the same time, she is very sensible and smart. For me, it’s very important at the end of her life how much she believes in God and trusts until the very end that it will be possible to fix everything. I love this role really for this aspect, how many colors of the character you can find in her.”
The cast also features members of the Atlanta Opera’s Artists in Residence Studio Program, which provides emerging opera artists with training and professional experience. All four singers of the current season (baritone Jonathan Bryan; soprano Anna Kozlakiewicz; mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sarian and tenor Justin Stolz) plus bass-baritone Alan Higgs, who is a Studio Artists alumni, will appear in the upcoming production.
In all, cast and crew agree that approaching the classic with new energy is crucial.
“When you approach something familiar, you don’t want to rely on your past routine of having done it so many times,” says Fagen. “You have to approach it with a fresh eye. There are so many dimensions to a really great work, and ‘Traviata’ is such a great opera that you should never, ever take it for granted.”
‘La Traviata.’ The Atlanta Opera. 8 p.m. April 27-May 5. $38-$134. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.
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