Brilliantly conceived, produced, and performed, IU Opera Theater's newly-mounted La Traviata ["The Fallen Woman"] probes beyond the usual way we look at this oft-produced 161-year-old opera for a deeper view of the way people perceive their roles in a particular social order, with marriage suitability as the pivot point.
Matthew Leone, in the program notes, traces how and why censors and opera house producers have made slight changes to the opera's original storyline to conform to community mores at each particular place and time of performance. Leone's essay leads us to consider the choices of conductor Joseph Rescigno and stage director Jeffrey Buchman, who bring us into the world of subtext and an examination of our own thinking.
The Overture distills a father-son moment of capturing a butterfly. While the child disdains what he has just done his father praises him for his prize. We hold dominion over butterflies.
Fast-forward fifteen years: Violetta in a dress startlingly resembling that of a butterfly is gazing longingly out of a glass-encased grand salon, gaiety of a party behind her. Not a word has been uttered - yet musically and visually, we know.
Fast-forward three months to the Act II country villa Violetta now shares with Alfredo. The butterfly case on a table confirms the arc of connectivity. And so it goes contextually throughout three acts, with minute details recurring as echoes from past to present, reflections as refractions to the very end. It all culminates with an amazing, chillingly heartbreaking final scene with its moment of illuminated zest for life before vitality is stilled.
Throughout Violetta proves herself less shallow than those who would disdain her. Alfredo's father is forced to change his arguments when confronting her for the sake of the happiness of his "pure and innocent daughter." It becomes Violetta's generosity upon which he preys, only later having to repent for his parsimonious behavior.
The cast, working within this careful reading of rationale to manipulate others towards our will, brings to light and life far more meaningful relationships than ever before witnessed during any of the other multiple "La Traviata's" I've attended. None ever materialized Violetta's perceived destiny, thoughts and fears as apparitions before our eyes. This underscored Violetta's transformation from life as a never-ending party to one of sharing an abiding love. Circumstance may have placed her outside of 'polite society' yet her humanity elevates her - with but 20 sous left in her coin box, as the merrymaking of Mardi Gras surrounds her deathbed Violetta instructs her maid to hurry out to give ten to the poor.
With splendid costumes by Linda Pisano depicting mid-19th century Paris, as Verdi intended, IU's production goes further to skirt centuries with Cameron Anderson's set and Patrick Mero's lighting. The look might be 1850, yet the feel is now.
For the four performances, the lead roles alternated between two casts: For Violetta Valery, Shannon Love and Lacy Sauter; for Alfredo Germont, Andrew Maugham and Derrek Stark; for Giorgio Germont, Joshua Conyers and Daniel Narducci. They, together with the supporting cast and chorus delivered sterling acting and singing. The orchestra amazed with intuitive articulation of what it means to be human and humane, with particular notice due to the solo clarinetist.
Equally, the ten dancers at the beginning of Act III merit attention for interpreting choreographer Rosa Mercedes' flamenco with mesmerizing precision, heightening the growing difference between Violetta's former life as a courtesan and the new path she chose and was forced to give up.
Composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Franceso Maria Piave based their 1853 La Traviata on Lady of the Camellias, the 1848 novel and 1852 stage play by Alexander Dumas fils. A quarter of a century later Henrik Ibsen wrote The Doll's House, not so much a statement for the rights of women as it was and remains as a statement for each of us to liberate ourselves - to strive to be who we really are. IU's stunning "La Traviata" stunningly shows how Verdi and Piave led the way.