Verdi’s Titillating Tragedy Will Consume You

Photo's by Cory Weaver


With splendid sumptuous sets and sonorous singing, LA Opera’s risqué revival of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is a veritable feast for the eyes, ears and senses. Translated from the Italian (the language this opera is sung in, although its action is set in France), the words “La Traviata” mean “The Fallen One,” and the title refers to the not-so-virginal Violetta Valèry (voluptuous soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen from Washington state), a highly successful Parisian prostitute (who is believed to have been based on an actual escort). The opera opens with a party Violetta is throwing for her exclusive circle of bourgeois pals at her elegant, exquisitely designed, capacious home, replete with chandeliers and wall-to-ceiling windows with excellent views of the City of Light (the dazzling sets and costumes are designed by Englishman Robert Innes Hopkins). The kinky courtesan’s opulent lair is the home that sex built – the world’s oldest profession can certainly be lucrative.

During the revelry, swept up in the ebullient spirit of things, the dashing newcomer Alfredo Germont (Armenian tenor Liparit Avetisyan) jauntily croons the immortal aria “Toast, Let’s Drink from the Joyful Chalices”:

“Let’s drink, drink from the joyful chalices
since the beautiness is blossoming.
And might the fleeting hour get inebriated at will
Let’s drink among (those) sweet quivers
that Love makes arise,
since that eye goes to (his) almighty heart.
Let’s drink, (my) love, (so that) love among the chalices
will get hotter kisses.”

The cast joins in the singing of this lyrical homage to pleasure – the opera’s most crowd-pleasing piece of music – which sets the stage for the three-act production, as Alfredo woos Violetta. The libidinal Liparit’s lips soon caress Violetta’s, and Alfredo steals her away from her lover, the older, wealthier Baron Douphol (New York bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell). They embark on a rapturous romance – and not one where sexual favors are “sexchanged” for cold hard cash, but for genuine passion and love. Indeed, Violetta even surreptitiously subsidizes their relationship, so smitten is she with Alfredo, who moves into a countryside sexual sanctuary with his odalisque, where they enjoy oceanic waves of sensual bliss. 

Anyone who thinks opera is for squares and stuffed shirts is sorely mistaken – this production is hot stuff and LA Opera even hired Sara E. Widzer to be the show’s “intimacy director.” (Although I hasten to add this production is never performed in bad taste.) The libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, and it is the same source material for George Cukor’s 1936 classic movie Camille, starring Greta Garbo.

But as the hedonism unfolds, there are, inevitably, flies in the ointment – from Romeo and Juliet to Harlequin romance novels, all love stories require obstacles for the lovers to try to overcome. And, since Violetta is an openly sexual woman who clearly enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, as is so often the case in Western, patriarchal (c)literature, she must be punished and pay the price for relishing and sharing her sensuality. "Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (South Korean baritone Kihun Yoon) – an archetypal cock block – pays the wanton woman an unannounced visit at her rural refuge, and implores Violetta to break up with his son for family reasons. Out of her love for Alfredo (who is apparently younger than her), she agrees to an act of great personal sacrifice for the good of his family. In doing so, she becomes a stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold.” 

But there is an even more powerful impediment to Violetta and Alfredo’s (ahem) all-consuming l’amour, which not even a passion for the ages can overcome. If you’re unfamiliar with details of this classic 19th century story dear reader, I won’t spoil the sexy saga by spilling the beans.  

Texan Shawna Lucey ably directs her large cast with aplomb, from tableaux requiring mass mise-en-scène to intimate behind-the-scenes boudoir sequences. James Conlon conducts LA Opera Orchestra with the surety of one who literally knows the score (on April 18 conductor Louis Lohraseb twirls the baton). I’ve already mentioned his scenery, but Robert Innes Hopkins’ period apparel also dazzles the eye, especially in a startling crossdressing dance with hoofers wearing costumes that are half matador, half senorita. Chorus director Jeremy Frank and John Heginbotham’s choreography likewise enliven this almost three-and-half-hour production with two intermissions. Altogether, the cast and crew breathe new life into Verdi’s ode to eroticism and true love that epitomizes the operatic experience. Viva Verdi!

La Traviata is being presented April 18, April 24, April 27 at 7:30 p.m. and April 21 at 2:00 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N Grand Avenue, Los Angeles CA, 90012. For tickets: ; (213)972-8001.