Opera in Washington has trended downward over the past decade. After fifteen glorious but expensive years with Plácido Domingo at the helm of what was in 2000 officially designated the “national” opera company, Washington National Opera now mounts only five productions per season, fewer than most other regional American cities and a fraction of the number that can be seen in most major international capitals. In 2011, financial difficulties led to WNO’s administrative takeover by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the grandiose arts edifice that has long housed its performances in what looks more like an Eastern European palace of culture than the intimate surroundings of a traditional theater. Daring productions are few and far between. Most casts tend not to be very starry. With the exception of the company’s commitment to present one American opera per season, and sparing initiative for children and experimental works, its programs barely stray out of the most traditional corpus of standard repertoire works. Stodgy Washington audiences seem to demand little more, so for the opening of the 2018–19 season the city received a new production of Verdi’s most popular and commonly performed opera, La traviata.

Arnold Livingston Geis as Gastone and Deborah Nansteel as Flora. Photo: Scott Suchman.

Washington soldiered through a new production of the opera just a decade ago, but it seemed pale even then. WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello’s new effort has some claim to elegance. For unexplained reasons, she decided to update the opera’s Parisian setting to the early twentieth century, an era known for its flamboyance and color, a world made by and for the bon vivant and the grande horizontale. With the heartrending subjects of sacrificial love and tragically fruitless reconciliation driving La traviata’s plot, the change of idiom seemed out of place. The Belle Époque looked beautiful, but it had largely left sentimentality behind in the dour mid-nineteenth century, which gave birth to both the opera and La Dame aux Camélias, the Alexandre Dumas fils novel on which it was based. With its scenes of old-fashioned Romantic love in a setting that could pass for Maxim’s, this Traviata evoked Colette’s Gigi without the cynical humor and Cole Porter’s Can-Can without the oversexed whimsy. Proustian heartlessness seemed consigned to a parallel universe in which romance never became a game or love an illusion.
 

Alfredo (Joshua Guerrero) greets a pair of hunting dogs. Photo: Scott Suchman.

The crowd was pleased by Alfredo’s Act II entrance with a brace of hunting dogs, but other moments came off awkwardly. During Violetta’s first-act cabaletta “Sempre libera,” Alfredo is meant to accompany her from outside, either knowingly or unknowingly, with lines from their earlier duet. This is an offstage moment for the tenor, but here he steals back on stage through revolving panels in the set, like a character actor delivering punch lines on a 1960s comedy television show. The effect drew attention away from Violetta’s raptured infatuation, which Alfredo’s lines are meant to stimulate and enhance rather than dully augment. More successful was the opera’s opening scene. To the strains of its musical introduction, which tells the story in reverse, we see Violetta in her final act hospital bed roused back to life through the memory of happier times. The music fits the progression perfectly, though even here there was some perhaps unintentional gallows humor when her maid shoos away gurney bearers who have come for Violetta’s body, despite her not being dead quite yet.

Washington soldiered through a new production of La traviata just a decade ago, but it seemed pale even then.

The cast was young, featuring singers who are starting to make it on European stages. The Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva looked the part of Violetta, but it was really only in the final scene that her lithe voice truly suited the music. The soft singing required of the dying Violetta matched the soprano’s delicate sincerity, and the reflective aria “Addio del passato” was her best singing. Earlier, however, her coloratura runs in the excited first act lacked conviction while her second-act singing seemed overwhelmed by the hefty ardor demanded of a dramatic soprano. No one ever claimed Violetta was an easy role—it morphs treacherously through three different vocal types—but it would probably have been better had Gimadieva put it off for another decade or so.The crowd was pleased by Alfredo’s Act II entrance with a brace of hunting dogs, but other moments came off awkwardly. During Violetta’s first act cabaletta “Sempre libera,” Alfredo is meant to accompany her from outside, either knowingly or unknowingly, with lines from their earlier duet. This is an offstage moment for the tenor, but here he steals back on stage through revolving panels in the set, like a character actor delivering punch lines on a 1960s comedy television show. The effect drew attention away from Violetta’s raptured infatuation, which Alfredo’s lines are meant to stimulate and enhance rather than dully augment. More successful was the opera’s opening scene. To the strains of its musical introduction, which tells the story in reverse, we see Violetta in her final act hospital bed roused back to life through the memory of happier times. The music fits the progression perfectly, though even here there was some perhaps unintentional gallows humor when her maid shoos away gurney bearers who have come for Violetta’s body, despite her not being dead quite yet.
 

The baritone Lucas Meachem delivered the performance’s best singing in the role of Alfredo’s meddlesome father, always known antipathetically by his last name, Germont. The right actor can make this romance-spoiling character into quite a villain, but Meachem humanized him more than one usually sees. With his excellent legato, he seemed to have all the makings of a true Verdi baritone.As her Alfredo, the rosy American tenor Joshua Guerrero sounded just a bit too sweet. The scenes demanding anger and envy fell flat in his sunny tenor delivery. He sang cautiously but not without passion in the deeply romantic moments. Yet there was little spark to make this a couple for which anyone would stand up and cheer. In the duet scenes, the two seemed stiff in a way that real lovers never do.

Michael Hewitt’s frustrated Baron Douphol and Timothy J. Bruno’s sympathetic but maudlin Doctor Grenvil stood out among the supporting cast. Renato Palumbo’s slow, plodding approach to Verdi’s music has not been missed in the eleven years since he last conducted for the company. Only the party scenes had anything resembling verve. True romance needs a faster pace than glacial.

Venera Gimadieva as Violetta. Photo: Scott Suchman.