Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Nothing on earth can come between us...except your TB - La Traviata

Well, what have we learned about nepotism, LA Opera? Apparently nothing, since they keep hiring Marta Domingo to design and direct (with her stupid right hand) productions of La Traviata. In 1999 and 2001, they performed her production that was set in Verdi’s time, as he intended it, and then Marta Domingo insisted in the program notes that Traviata shouldn’t be updated but should be allowed to exist in its own time. How soon she forgets, because this Traviata is set in the 1920s. No reason, really, except that it’s sparklier in the ‘20s or something. Of course, Domingo blah-blah-blahed some nonsense about flappers being more aware of death or something because of World War I and were rebelling against it by enjoying excess. I think dying of tuberculosis also makes you want to rebel against the specter of death by enjoying excess, but that’s just me. Incidentally, because I can’t write a review without mentioning what an assclown he is, Mark Swed complained that Domingo’s last production of La Traviata made the whole opera into “one preposterously overblown death scene” for Violetta. That’s basically what the opera is, though; Violetta has tuberculosis throughout the whole thing – she horks up blood in the first scene, for fuck’s sake; she is dying throughout the whole opera.

In the last few seasons, LA Opera has been doing this lame, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing with the Met. Only since it’s LAO versus the Met, it’s more like David-keeping-up-with-Goliath, except that David shot himself in the eye with his slingshot instead of aiming it at Goliath. So if the Met has a horse onstage for no reason, LA puts a car on stage for no reason. At least two productions have had cars onstage this year. If Grendel rides in on a jalopy next week, I’m blowing something up, I swear. In this production, Violetta arrives at her own party (which is being held at her own house) in a shiny cream-colored Rolls Royce (I guess). The car was pulled on and off the stage with some very visible ropes that Elizabeth Futral (Violetta) and some of the chorus members had to step over. It’s a useless waste of time and money, and it made no fucking sense.

But let me back up to the first WTF moment of the evening. During the prelude, the curtain rose to reveal a gas lamppost in front of a black scrim. As the music played, a young, conservatively dressed lady carrying a suitcase came out and stood in front of the lamppost. She seemed to be praying. Then a slimy-looking sort of guy (he looked a bit like the Shifty Salesman on Sesame Street, only not green and not selling a letter) walked out and started hassling her. She refused him for a while, but eventually he picked up her suitcase and led her off-stage. For a blowjob, I’m guessing, because nothing turns good girls into whores like threatening to steal their suitcases. After they left, a flapper came out and started doing all these lame Vanna White on ecstasy poses around the lamppost. Then a guy in a tuxedo walked out, gave the flapper something, and carried her offstage. OK. Was that supposed to be like Violetta’s evolution into whoredom? Now that’s a kind of evolution that the Republicans can get behind.

Then Violetta’s guests came onstage for the party scene, which was apparently being held in the street, and the stupid car was pulled out. After that, the lamppost and the scrim rose, and a few maids rolled out this hideous cream-colored bathmat that was supposed to signify that we were now in Violetta’s “luxurious” sugar-daddy-money house. There were a few random art deco-style pieces of furniture around, but that was it. In true LA Opera fashion, the hints for the stage direction in the libretto were largely ignored. For example, nowhere in Piave’s libretto does it say that Violetta’s deathbed in the last scene is outside in the middle of winter, being snowed on. In fact, the libretto mentions, I think, that it’s Easter. But since Domingo wanted the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-sock-full-of-obviousness-and-some- oranges, she had the second act set in autumn (because Violetta is slowly dying, like the falling leaves! Alfredo and Violetta’s love is starting to rot, like the falling leaves!). The leaves were in pretty autumnal colors (to match Violetta’s copper and brown dress and furniture, of course), but they were glue-gunned to a shitty-looking scrim that had swirling red patterns on it and that rippled when the air-conditioning came on. Because the cold winds of change were blowing! Gag. And since everyone knows that winter=death, the last act had to be set in winter…outside…with snow and a dumb moon with Beardsley or Muchaesque paisley patterns on it and weird daisy-shaped things with lights in them hanging from the ceiling.

No LA Opera production would be complete without some retarded dancing. This appeared in the form of a bunch of ‘20s style dancers in jingly gold bikini that reminded me of a statue in the Flynt Building. Oh, Larry Flynt, you and your appreciation of the feminine form, from statues to naked-lady coffee tables to fully spread beaver shots. Then the “bull fighter” came out and flailed around in gold lame harem pants, doing some really lame pseudo-Nijinsky moves, because omgNijinksywassohotandschizophrenic! I was like, “Oh, Peggy Hickey, I’ve seen Nijinksy’s choreography, and you, broken-down blow-up doll, are no Nijinsky.” But then it turned out that someone else did the choreography (a shocker! Maybe Peggy Hickey had lockjaw, so they hired someone else).

Elizabeth Futral was pretty good as Violetta. She was the only one of the three principals who did much acting. Her voice sounded frayed and ragged though, especially during the coloratura in “Sempre libera”. It was actually difficult to listen to. Yeah, she hit the E-flat, which is apparently the be-all and the end-all with some people, but if it sounds like shit, who cares how high it is? In the softer parts, when she didn’t have to push at all, her voice was pleasant, if sometimes a bit too soubrettish for Violetta. Some of the direction was questionable, but that wasn’t Futral’s fault. During the Brindisi, she was singing about offering Alfredo wine…while shaking a martini. Somebody didn’t graduate from bartender school! In the last act, when Violetta is usually giving Alfredo a portrait of herself to remember her by and show to his future wife, Futral instead framed her face with her hands and said, “Give her this image.” So he should take your face after you’re dead then? Tear the flesh, make his future wife wear the flesh, and have her be born unto new worlds, using the flesh as her key? Futral also never coughed, which is pretty odd for someone dying of consumption, but luckily the audience wasn’t short on tuberculosis patients and they took up the slack for her.

I’ve read a few reviews in which people have creamed themselves silly over Joseph Calleja, but I don’t really get what all the fuss is about. He’s got a huge voice, big enough to fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is no mean feat, but he doesn’t do very much with it. At one point, during the last act, he actually used a little bit of shading, and then I was like, “OK, yeah, this is good.” To my ear, his voice is also not homogeneous throughout his range; it almost sounds like two different people from the low end to the high end, where it tends to get very nasal and back-of-the-throaty. The whole Eustachian area, pretty much. He’s stocky and kind of handsome in a pudgy John Thomson from The Fast Show sort of way, except he looked like a Blue Meany during the scene at Flora’s party when Alfredo is super-pissed at Violetta. Hey, maybe Violetta and her Rolls Royce will crash into a crappy drawing of Queen Victoria! Calleja doesn’t act at all; he just faces the audience and raised his arms once in a while, or just stands around with his arms rigidly at his sides. He looks kind of like an overgrown smug infant. I almost cracked up in the last act when he’s reunited with the dying Violetta – instead of running into the room to see his beloved, Calleja just kind of good-naturedly lumbered in. Now that’s passion!

Dwayne Croft was also good as Germont. He wasn’t great, by any means, and his voice is starting to go the way of his hair and thin out on top. Many critics think that Germont is a boring role, and I tend to agree with them, but more can be done with it than Croft did. At the end of the opera, Violetta mentions that Alfredo and his father are the two people she loves most, but none of the interactions between Croft and Futral could’ve led us to believe that. In the second act, when he asks her to leave Alfredo so Alfredo’s sister won’t be tainted by association, a tenderness, grudging respect, and genuine remorse is supposed to arise in Germont for Violetta. In this production, Germont came in, insulted her, stood around stiffly and refused to hug her. There was so warmth in Croft’s voice either. In the last act, they had sprayed a bunch of gray in his hair, so I was left to wonder why they let Tchaikovsky into Violetta’s apartment.

I almost forgot the worst part of all, the part that almost made me simultaneously laugh and vomit. In the last production of La Traviata, Marta Domingo had a Mr. Hyde-like character come out during a musical interlude in the last act and whirl Violetta around for no reason. Was he Death? A deranged top-hat enthusiast? So when the last act rolled around this time, I was just waiting for that WTF? Moment. Not just any WTF? Moment, the WTF? Moment. And sure enough, there it was. Violetta was staggering around her room, waiting for Alfredo to show up and listening to the crowds celebrating outside. Suddenly, two dancers dressed in filmy white with veils (escapees from David McVicar’s over-the-top Faust at Covent Garden a few years ago) ran in, dragged Violetta over to the center of the stage, made her kneel down, and put a veil on her? Violetta looked ecstatic that she was going to be a bride (or that she was going to receive communion or something), but then the white-clad bitches whipped the veil off her head and ran away again. Violetta tried to follow them, but instead did a faceplant. It was toe-tappingly tragic! Her maid came in and was like, “Are you feeling better?” Yes, she’s feeling fine; she just likes to see how the floor smells once in a while, genius. I just don’t understand why directions think that they have to fill every bit of music with movement! and action!

As of now, I’m putting La Traviata on notice. It hasn’t quite reached “Smell Ya Later” status like Carmen, but it’s pushing it. Part of the problem is just that it’s so overdone. LA Opera is putting on the same production of it in September of this year, though mercifully that one is only for bigshots who want to shell out the extra dollars to see Renée “I shit myself in awe over how good I sound” Fleming and Rolando Villazon, so I won’t have to see it again. What I’d really love is for LA Opera to spend less money getting these bullshit con artists like Robert Wilson and Julie Taymor to do the productions and spend more money on great singers, while expanding the repertoire instead of just doing the same five or six operas every year with a new, “updated” production. I don’t go to the opera to see amazing lighting or computer-controlled walls; I go to hear the voices, and LA Opera just isn’t making it worth my while anymore.The quality of that review is in equal proportion to my enjoyment of the opera. Sorry.

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