The orchestra, international soloists and members of the İstanbul State Opera Chorus performed a minimally staged version of this opera, one of the world’s most popular. The maestro noted with some humor in the program booklet that the premiere of the opera had been a failure; it seems the leading diva was quite obese and the audience booed her portrayal of a dying consumptive. Now one of the world’s most-performed opera scores, full of delicious music for both the singers and the orchestra, “La traviata” enjoyed another creative rendition on the stage of İstanbul’s Lütfi Kırdar Convention Center.
Restaged for a concert hall
A voluminous part of the mis en scène that night were two giant photographs, one on each side of the proscenium, of composer Verdi and Francesco Piave, the librettist who adapted the Alexandre Dumas’ novel “La dame aux Cameliás.” On the center wall high above the orchestra was a film and slide pastiche of various film versions of the opera and photos of historical and present-day divas in the role of Violetta Valéry, the Parisian courtesan who has a star-crossed love affair with a nobleman who also loves her but whose aristocratic father forbids him to associate with her. She subsequently dies from tuberculosis, but not until all three forgive each other. During the overture, whose music foreshadows the tragedy to come as well as the frivolity that surrounds Violetta’s high society life, a film was shown that depicted an opulent 19th century setting in the Paris environment where La traviata (which means “the woman who strayed”) conducted her “affaires d’amour.”
Taking a work out of the opera house and transposing it to the concert stage is a tricky business because a plot is more easily understood by physical action. There was a printed libretto in both Italian and Turkish, but the lights were so low it was impossible to read. However, there were Turkish supertitles above the stage. The spatial limitations were severe in this case because the orchestra took up most of the space on stage. On the far sides of the orchestra was the chorus, with narrow aisles for the soloists to walk onstage, to an area right in front of the footlights. This positions singers behind the conductor’s back instead of the reverse, making the musical coordination especially arduous, but director Yekta Kara made it all work. Expressing the relationships between the characters then depends on using some savvy body language in place of using sets and props. There were successes and a misfire in this regard. The cast, Moldovian soprano Inna Los as Violetta, Catalan tenor Álex Vicens as her true love, Alfredo, Korean baritone Gérard Kim as his father, Germont, and seven local singers for the most part surmounted these challenges and told the story with vigorous commitment.
Superb vocal performances
I’ll start with the chorus, which sounded glorious. Their strong vibrant voices, especially the women, provided lots of vitality. Their performance under Goetzel’s baton was far superior to what I have previously heard in the opera house. Ms. Los has a beautiful and seamless voice that clearly has mastered the vocal challenges of this role, which requires a wide compass, flexibility and plenty of sparkling high notes. Her renditions of the famous “Ah, fors’è lui” and “Sempre libera” were musically polished and convincing, but unfortunately a lack of convincing stage presence was competing negatively with her singing. Her habit of holding her skirt and nervously pacing up and down the front of the stage only served to hinder her dramatic focus and wore my patience thin. Was she given no stage direction? I needed to close my eyes to hear and feel her emotion because her constant adjustment of her long hair was another annoying distraction. Her death scene was an awkward semi-collapse in a nearby folding chair. Alfredo seemed to be as nonplussed as I was.
Mr. Kim was a clear audience favorite at applause time, and it was no surprise why. He wasted no motion delivering his ardent messages through his body’s grounded stance, only taking a single step or moving an arm when it was clearly connected to the drama. His fervent, richly imbued vocalism, especially in “Di provenza il mar,” where he advises and comforts his son, was compelling because it was organic and real. Similarly, mezzo-soprano Arzu Bozkurt delivered a rich voice and realistic acting as Violetta’s maid, Annina.
As Alfredo, Mr. Vicens was a wild animal let out of his cage on stage. A fiery and fearless singer, albeit sometimes over the top, he nevertheless portrayed the young adoring nobleman with eager energy and a vivid vocalism that qualifies him for membership in the select club of Italianate lyric tenors who were born to sing this repertoire. His clean diction, dazzling high notes and heartfelt embodiment of Alfredo’s crushing emotional dilemma provided plenty of passion, power and pizzazz to this performance.
Maestro Goetzel, who has conducted in major international opera houses, has previously given us several tastes of his penchant for this genre; his debut concert in 2008 featured excerpted scenes. But now, this was a whole opera. The orchestra basically played the role of accompanist for the evening, and accompanying opera singers is tough musical work. The amount of tempo changes they must accommodate and the consistent requirement to feel the breaths of the singers in order to keep the texture from unraveling is testament to their incredible musical progress under Goetzel’s guidance.