MUSIC | Minnesota Opera's "La Traviata" is a treat

Bruno Ribeiro and Elizabeth Futral enjoy a little afternoon delight in La Traviata. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Minnesota Opera.

I need to begin this review with an apology to the people sitting near me and my friend Katie at the Ordway on Saturday night. When the dying courtesan Violetta beckoned her lover Alfredo close, then closer, than even closer, and there was a moment of silence, I couldn't resist leaning over to Katie and whispering, "It would be really funny if she farted right now." I am sorry about that...well, actually, I'm not really sorry, but I am sorry if Katie's stifled laughter distracted anyone from the climax of this exhilarating production of the towering opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi.

Though I knew the music from recordings, this was the first staged production of La Traviata I'd seen, and I was struck by what a lucid, accessible, varied composition it is. The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, adapted from the 1849 novel La Dame Aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, centers on Violetta (Elizabeth Futral, in the performance I saw), a Parisian party girl who settles down with her suitor Alfredo (Bruno Ribeiro, on Saturday night), only to be informed by Alfredo's father (Stephen Powell) that she must abandon Alfredo because his family—including his innocent sister—is being ostracized due to Alfredo's scandalous relationship. Tragedy ensues.

la traviata, presented at the ordway center for the performing arts through march 13. for tickets ($20-$200) and information, see mnopera.org.

Like many operas, La Traviata takes a fairly simple plot and stretches it out over three hours, so you're not going to be hanging on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens: success is all about the details and the texture, and this production scores on almost all fronts. From score to floor, this is the best Minnesota Opera production I've seen to date.

Futral and Ribeiro are well-matched, both as singers and as actors. They have genuine chemistry together and, though on Saturday they started out a little stiff—especially Futral—by Act II they'd swung into their roles with gusto, wearing Verdi's classic melodies like gloves. From a dramatic standpoint, Powell has a thankless role, but his baritone is so rich and supple that you could sit there and listen to him lecture Violetta all night. Crucially, all are capable of the wide dynamic swings Verdi demands, from gentle pleas to throaty cries.

"No orchestra can really have fun playing Verdi's La Traviata," avers one anonymous blogger, but the band playing this production under the baton of Michael Christie sure sound like they're proving that assertion wrong. From the woodwind solos to the brass blasts, this is a scintillating performance that reminds you what Verdi learned from Mozart about drama, pacing, and orchestral color.

While from a purely visual standpoint Tom Mays's sets are nothing to write home about, they're superbly designed to facilitate the drama—especially in busy scenes like the Act I and II parties. Stage director Lawrence Edelson and lighting designer Josh Epstein elegantly conduct the action so that it's always completely clear to the audience not only where the action is, but what's at stake. (For an imagined hipster socialite's take on the Act II party, click here.)

For some reason, this winter the blogosphere discovered an essay I wrote last year titled "Why we shouldn't do a damn thing about the decline of classical music," and it's become one of the Daily Planet's most-read stories over the past couple of months. "Great art takes care of itself," I argued, and while productions like this don't stage (or fund) themselves, the fact that world-class productions like this can take place in our mid-sized Midwestern metropolis—and can, in fact, pack the house—makes it hard to be pessimistic about the future, or the present, of classical music.

345 Washington St.
Saint Paul, MN
651-282-3000