The Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater presents a sexy new staging of “La Traviata.”
After introducing opera to its newly restored main auditorium three weeks ago with a dismally sung, played and staged version of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater more than redeemed itself last weekend when it presented the local public premiere of a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Though not exactly new, the production had previously been seen only at a closed preview two years ago and on tours to the United States and Yekaterinburg.
Of the half-dozen versions of Verdi’s immensely popular opera to appear in Moscow over the past decade, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko’s, from what was seen and heard at the performance last Saturday, stands at the very top in terms of both dramatic conviction and musical execution.
The production, played in modern dress against a mostly abstract setting, is the work of the theater’s artistic director of opera, Alexander Titel, and it is probably the best thing he has come up with since directing Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Gambler” at the Bolshoi Theater six seasons ago. His is a hard-edged approach, one that truly succeeds in bringing the opera’s characters to life and in revealing much about them that conventional productions tend to gloss over.
Violetta Valery, the “Lost One” of the opera’s title, is not the usual stock figure, the “whore with a heart of gold,” but a genuine human being, one who foolishly accepts what she takes to be true love, sacrifices herself on its behalf and, as a result, suffers humiliation, abandonment and a death under the most abject of circumstances. Her supposed lover, Alfredo Germont, is exposed as a complete cad, indifferent to the ruin he has caused. And the concern expressed by Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, for the welfare of both parties seems to stem from nothing more than a selfish desire to save face and reputation.
The role of Violetta last Saturday fell to Khibla Gerzmava, the Abkhazian-born soprano who took the Grand Prize in singing — a unique award, never given before or after — at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition. Many at the time considered Gerzmava a dubious choice. But during her subsequent career at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, she has cast aside any doubts raised 12 years ago with a series of outstanding portrayals, sung in a crystal-clear coloratura voice and, for the most part, displaying a superb gift for comedy.
With “La Traviata,” Gerzmava has managed a remarkably successful move to the world of high operatic tragedy. Singing beautifully as usual, with secure technique and ethereal high notes, she seemed not merely to play, but to become Violetta. The very picture of a frivolous courtesan at the start, her later suffering and death seemed equally believable. At the curtain call, Gerzmava looked as if she had just been awakened from a nightmare.
Playing opposite Gerzmava on Saturday, as Alfredo, was Alexei Dolgov. A bit wooden and at times awkward on stage, he nevertheless fit quite neatly into Titel’s concept and sang the part with a clean lyric tenor and with all the notes at his command. Probably no finer Alfredo can currently be heard on the Russian operatic stage.
All of the minor roles were nicely handled, in particular those of Violetta’s protector, Baron Douphol, as played by the theater’s stalwart bass Roman Ulybin, and of Violetta’s friend, Flora Bervoix, in a delightfully sexy interpretation by soprano Yelena Maksimova.
The only real flaw in Saturday’s performance was baritone Yevgeny Polikanin’s portrayal of Giorgio Germont. What emerged was yet another of those all-too-familiar variations on the theme of Polikanin playing Polikanin. Perhaps his limitations as an actor might have been forgiven had he given one of Verdi’s supreme baritone roles its vocal due. But instead of the rich and finely nuanced vocalism the part requires, all he brought to it was a dull, unvaried forte, occasionally interspersed with bits of crooning at reduced volume.
Apart from taking certain passages at unusually slow speed, the theater’s principal conductor, Felix Korobov, gave “La Traviata” the same sort of firm, decisive and idiomatic leadership that so distinguished his reading of Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet “Cinderella” early last month. And his musicians in the pit responded again with a top-notch performance.
Titel likes to call the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko “a theater for the thinking man with a sense of humor.” Perhaps with that in mind, he chose to replace the usual Spanish dancers in the opera’s second-act ballroom scene with five ladies and three gentlemen from a pair of so-called “erotic dance” companies, all of whom eventually stripped to their G-strings. Some in the audience on Saturday were not amused. One critic said it was simply embarrassing, adding that it left her with the feeling she might have if she opened the door of a toilet stall and found its seat already occupied. To me, however, it seemed a completely harmless bit of comic relief.
Further performances of “La Traviata” have yet to be announced. But the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko will no doubt be presenting it early and often in the New Year.