Monday, September 15, 2008

The Washington National Opera staged its most electric opening night in recent memory Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, unwrapping a visually arresting and emotionally moving version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

Ably directed by Marta Domingo, this traditional production also seemed tailor-made for WNO’s free simulcast, beamed across town to the five-story high-definition scoreboard screen at Nationals Park for a large and festive outdoor audience.

Starring soprano Elizabeth Futral and tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz, the production resurrected the sumptuous sets and vintage costuming that were so successful in the opera’s last appearance here several seasons ago. The beautiful Act I garden party and the fabulously red salon-bordello sets remain just as stunning as they were the last time we saw the production.

“La Traviata” (roughly “The Fallen Woman”) charts the tragic downward trajectory of Violetta Valery, a fictional 19th-century courtesan popularized in the novel and stage play “La Dame aux Camelias,” penned by the younger Alexandre Dumas.

A little like today’s pricey urban call girls, women like Violetta could become fabulously rich via their elite clientele’s largess. Yet the corrupt upper crust responsible for their existence still looked down upon them as disreputable.

This presents a problem for the consumptive Violetta and wealthy young Alfredo Germont. Like Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman,” they fall madly in love despite social taboos.

This isn’t 20th-century Hollywood, however. Enter Alfredo’s father, Giorgio. More hip to prevailing social mores, he persuades Violetta to dump his son to spare the family’s honor, and things spiral out of control.

Miss Futral, in perfect voice Saturday evening, was a superbly believable Violetta. She sang beautifully throughout and imposed a subtle measure of restraint on her instrument after her exuberant Act I champagne duet with Alfredo, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” making her gradual consumptive decline quite believable.

As Alfredo, Mr. Chacon-Cruz is in many ways Violetta’s polar opposite. His passion can (and does) morph into hotheaded jealousy almost without warning. His clarion tone and piercingly clean top notes accentuated the impetuosity of his character.

Baritone Lado Ataneli took an interesting approach toward the distasteful Giorgio Germont, portraying him as something of a clueless bumbler rather than a heartless villain. Vocally, Mr. Ataneli was clear and convincing in his pivotal Act II scene with Violetta, but his intonation seemed somewhat insecure in the closing Act III ensemble.

The musical surprise of the evening was the sparkling WNO debut of conductor Dan Ettinger. Under his baton, the orchestra was on fire, shimmering and exciting when it mattered and unobtrusively elegant when the soloist needed to be highlighted.

Though we couldn’t be in two places at once, a quick check of photoblogging offers anecdotal evidence that WNO’s free, fan-friendly stadium simulcast was quite a success. It attracted what appeared to be a large and festive crowd happily picnicking in the outfield or munching hot dogs in the stands.

One commentator appreciated a surprise halftime welcome by WNO General Director Placido Domingo, who had appeared earlier at Kennedy Center to kick off opening night. Another comment praised the quality of the production but said the sound of the stadium’s public address system was not always the best. Still, the contributor observed, “For the price, you really can’t complain.”

WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Sept. 18, 24 and 30 and Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 27 at 7 p.m.; Sept. 21 and Oct. 5 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: $25 to $300. Call the box office at 202/295-2400 or 800/876-7972; or visit

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