12 November 2007

La Traviata

Opera Colorado is currently putting on Verdi's La Traviata at the Ellie, which is now in its second season as Denver's premier high art forum.

The acoustics are excellent, the sight lines are good from almost every seat (a few in the top balcony level aren't ideal), the seat back Figaro translation system is unobtrusive and workable, the leg room is better than many spaces (although the seats aren't luxurious), the bar code ticket checking system works well, and the soaring ceilings are uplifting. Alas, the Ellie's designers were not among the enlightened few who understand that women require far more restroom space than men to clear through in comparable times during an intermission. Opera wear, common even though not universal in Denver, accentuates this timing distinction to a degree even greater than other public gathering places.

While Giuseppe Verdi was reportedly "displeased with his cast, beginning with a zaftig soprano to portray his consumptive hero," in the Opera's 1853 premier, according to Peter Russell's liner notes, Opera Colorado made a similar choice for Violetta Valery, the fallen woman of the title, with Pamela Armstrong. Her strong voice and expressive acting compensated for the fact that she bore little resemblance to a courtesan with tuberculosis. And, after all, this is opera, where genre conventions are more important than verisimilitude. It's not over until . . .

The libretto, at least as translated into English, was actually more chaste than the synopsis supplied in the program, perhaps under pressure from 19th century Italian censors, and the choreography, staging and blocking in this performance, while strongly suggestive, was not explicit. While the best seats in the house were mostly a sea of gray hair, the show was entirely suitable for my eight year old daughter.

While apparently it was based on the true story of the affair of Alexandre Dumas with courtesan Marie Duplessis, first made into a novel, then a play and finally an opera, and was informed by the experiences of Verdi's (second) wife, herself a former courtesan, the story itself, to twenty-first century sensibilities, is barely comprehensible.

The notion that a dying woman should be considered noble for sacrificing the greatest love of her life, so that her lover's sister could marry into money, seems queer. The protocol that drives one man to challenge another to a duel over an offense to a woman is unfamiliar. The meaning of the fact that the man guilty of giving offense wins the duel is opaque. The days when the parties of the upper classes were lascivious instead of stuffy, and drunkenness was a virtue, seem remote. Perhaps the only familiar conventions in the story are that doctors still lie to desperately ill patients about their prospects of survival, and that middle aged men who claim to speak for God are usually in the business of making things worse.

The original story probably could be told in a way that resonated better with contemporary concerns and understandings, but century and a half old operas turn out to be harder to remake than twice as old Shakespeare. Opera is, at heart, about the music, and music is exquisitely a produce of a moment in history. Just as a few bars of melody definitively distinguish disco from grunge, no amount of window dressing will transform Verdi into Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or John Williams. And, while the wine of old stories can be poured into new skins, a distinguished old opera that tried to dress up like twenty-first century teenager would simply look embarrassing and silly.

On a more practical note, here are a couple of tips on parking. While the bridge linked convention center lot is fine for a small car and a pleasant fall day, if it is raining or snowing, leaving early to benefit from the atrium covered connection to the Denver Performing Arts Center is worth your while. And, the long, very tight, unforgiving cement spiral ramp down to the street from the new convention center lot is no place for a clumsy suburban driver with a large SUV or full sized sedan -- the entire way down is streaked with souvenirs of drivers who learned that lesson the hard way.

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