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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

A Misguided Venture

Classical Review

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Theludicrous production of La Traviata that opened at Skylight Opera last weekend proved that a great Verdi melody is indestructible. This unbelievably misguided venture only works in the final scene, when all its incompetence, bad direction and quarter-baked ideas mercifully recede enough for focus on the bare essentials of opera: a voice singing great music that communicates character and emotion.

The Skylight apparently believes that its audience needs “help” in relating to La Traviata, a desperately unwise and incredibly disrespectful point of view. It should have been a red flag when the company realized that La Traviata could not be updated as is, because Germont’s moral objection over his son’s affair with Violetta would never be believed in a contemporary context.

Rather than choosing something else, or choosing to respect the piece, the company headed pell-mell into a version by librettist/director Dimitri Toscas that leaves the score in shreds and entirely tosses out the original libretto, freely rewritten with a story about a pop star and a politician who seems to have no constituency. This mess doesn’t even make sense on its own as a logical play or scenario, never mind that Verdi’s music does not remotely suit a story about a pop diva. Whatever its production, a theater company does not drastically rewrite the script of a Shakespeare or Ibsen play. When Jonathan Larson took the basic story of La bohème and updated it in Rent, he had the artistic integrity to write his own music, and left Puccini alone. The notable reinterpretations of standard opera repertory—however wacky—done by some directors all over the world have a common thread: they leave the libretto and score alone. That taste and judgment eludes the Skylight and Toscas.

Even on its own terms, this is not a good libretto. It is full of awkward language, attempting to mix contemporary vernacular with badly written, stillborn, overwrought sentiments. Giggle-inducing moments abound, such as when Alfredo sings an impassioned Italian melody with the words “She’s back in Vegas.”

As for the performers, I can only offer my sympathies.