- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

The Washington National Opera’s new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” wobbled a bit this Saturday past before blossoming into one of the company’s finest efforts this season.

Featuring an extraordinarily sensitive cast of principal singers performing amidst the backdrop of Giovanni Agostinucci’s grandly conceived sets and gorgeous costuming, this “Traviata” is sure to warm the hearts of most Verdi partisans.

But not all.

For the company has chosen to revive Verdi’s original version of the opera, first mounted in its premiere at La Fenice in Venice on March 6, 1853. Initially designed with contemporary costuming —an unpopular innovation in its time — and with the role of Violetta, the consumptive courtesan, sung by a rather zaftig soprano, “Traviata” (“The woman who went astray”) was not exactly a hit with opening night audiences. Having already set the clock back to the 1700s, Verdi tinkered with the opera again, snipping some of its more vocally taxing music and splitting the two scenes of Act II into separate acts. He reopened it a year later to great acclaim.

This WNO production restores the original version, including the 19th century time period, the two-part second act, and the “lost” music to commemorate the work’s 150th anniversary. Purists who prefer the second version may be aghast. But the original version has some lovely, unaccustomed music to offer, particularly for Violetta and old Germont in Act II.

Based on the novel-and play-by Alexandre Dumas fils, “La Dame aux Camelias,” Verdi’s opera weaves the tragic tale of Violetta Valery, a high-class Parisian courtesan, a kind of 19th century call girl. She falls genuinely in love with Alfredo Germont, a sincere but impecunious young man. But their affair is interrupted by Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, who convinces the consumptive Violetta to break off the relationship for the sake of family honor, with tragic consequences.

Renowned Korean-American soprano Hei-Kyung Hong was a bit tentative in the first act, seemingly troubled by a dry throat during a couple of her entrances. But by Act II, the bloom was restored to her exquisite, sweetly lyric voice. Her nuanced approach imbued Violetta with a delicate, almost saintly dignity, particularly in the three-hankie final scene.

As Violetta’s lover Alfredo, young American tenor John Matz also seemed unsure of himself in the early going, but soon revealed a finely-developed instrument of considerable power with room to grow. A winner of Placido Domingo’s 2002 “Operalia” competition, his is a talent to watch.

Perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise was Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes’ dazzling performance as the priggish Germont. The role is vocally taxing, particularly in the original version of this opera where Germont gets more challenging music to sing. But Mr. Lagunes was flawless, his sumptuous voice warming the room with velvet magic and perfect diction. His Germont was transformed into a tragically respectable fellow whose repentance in the end is genuine.

Director Marta Domingo’s trademark style eschews unnecessary stage business and places her principals close to the audience to ensure that they are heard. She has had her detractors — this writer not among them — but her philosophy convincingly proved its worth in this most intimate of grand operas.

Kudos to Giovanni Reggioli for his finely honed conducting of the WNO orchestra. And an extra hat tip to Mr. Agostinucci whose Valentine-red set for Act II’s second scene was clearly the best bordello in Paris.

***

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow, and May 20, 26, and June 1 at 7:30 p.m.; May 17, and 29 at 7 p.m.; May 23 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $41 to $285.

INFORMATION: Call the box office at 202/295-2469 or visit www.dc-opera.org


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