If you change everything about yourself, perhaps a man will love you — or so the great tragedies of Grease and La Traviata tell us. The latter makes a magnificently melancholy finale to Virginia Opera’s 48th season with an epic, insightful performance of Violetta Valéry by Brandie Inez Sutton. The former, unfortunately, has the more redeemable libretto.
Despite the challenges of Francesco Maria Piave’s book — the editing of which could easily shave 40 minutes and save audience members from resenting Giuseppe Verdi forever — Virginia Opera’s remounting is a triumph, in large part because of Sutton’s nuanced and careful characterization of its complicated heroine.
In Act One, we meet Violetta, a courtesan hosting a rager at her Paris salon. At a time when women’s lives were dependent entirely upon the whims of men, her profession offers a small degree of freedom and autonomy compared with other women of the time. Though her livelihood remained in the hands of men, courtesans had more access to the upper echelons of society — heads of state, writers, artists, politicians — and could therefore wield more social, economic, and even political power than married or single women. Her salon reflects this — between the breathtaking scenic design by Robert Little and a strong chorus outfitted in elaborate costuming by John Lehmeyer, it is clear Violetta lives in luxury.
She meets Alfredo (Won Whi Choi), a bourgeois who claims to have loved Violetta for the past year despite never actually talking to her. Like the many lovers of Manic Pixie Dream Girls before and after him, Alfredo places Violetta on a pedestal without actually knowing her all too well. She tells him in the duet “Un dí felice” that she “cannot live up to such a heroic, poetic ideal” as he describes her and their love to be. He insists that if she gives up her life of independence and wealth, their love will sustain them. Violetta, who has recently recovered from tuberculosis, is tempted by this illusion of love.
Sutton then takes the audience on a journey through Violetta’s thoughts. Alone onstage, she expresses every hesitation and hope on her mind. Sutton’s voice is undeniably perfect, but what makes this performance worth seeing is her acting. This 15-minute stretch of the production is a masterclass in acting, and it is a testament to her as well as the direction by Tara Faircloth.
In this glorious finale to Act One, Violetta declares she will be forever free as she falls into her chaise defiantly.
Five minutes later, Violetta is, in fact, not free, having taken up with empty-headed Alfredo in the countryside. Act Two opens with Alfredo finding out that Violetta has had to sell many of her possessions in order to support their lifestyle. He is surprised that love cannot actually pay rent, so he runs off to Paris to arrange his finances, just before his father Giorgio (Grant Youngblood) arrives. He tells Violetta she needs to leave his son alone as her reputation is an impediment to his own daughter’s marriage. This first scene of Act Two is slow and repetitive through no fault of the creative team, but it is helped along by the chemistry between Youngblood and Sutton as well as by Artistic Director Adam Turner’s careful and mericifully up-tempo conducting of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.
Violetta, moved by Giorgio’s love for his daughter, knows better than anyone how reputation can impede a woman’s chances at a happy life, and she agrees to give up her life with Alfredo for his sister, a woman we never meet. She leaves Alfredo, but she does not tell him why, so his fragile ego leads him to assume she has left him for the Baron (Erik Grendahl). Won Whi Choi’s performance makes Alfredo the vengeful man he clearly is, and his cruelty is evident in the second scene of the act where Flora (Taylor-Alexis Dupont) hosts an even more beautiful soirée than the last.
Little’s sets and Lehmeyer’s costumes steal the show again in this scene — the set transitions throughout, though long, are worth the wait as I felt utterly transported to 1850s Paris. Flora’s party was even grander than Violetta’s with a crimson-dripped homage to Ottoman architecture, featuring detailed lamps from above and heavily garnished costuming on the captivating ensemble. The chorus shines here, and this opera would be nothing without them or the stage management team who orchestrate these complicated transitions (production stage management by Karen T. Federing). Without either team, this staging would feel thin and forgettable. Opera is not possible without its many ensembles, and I would be remiss not to mention this is the last production for Ken Krantz, a bass who has grounded chori at Virginia Opera for the past 45 years.
The ensemble takes Alfredo to task when, in a jealous rage, he throws money at Violetta, claiming he’s now repaid any debt he may owe her. They criticize his outburst intended to shame her, and Giorgio also reappears to admonish his son for treating Violetta so cruelly. As Violetta finally starts to succumb to tuberculosis, Alfredo learns of what she did for his sister, and he and Giorgio are oddly praised as the two men Violetta loves most despite doing the most damage. Act Three is the slowest one yet, but Sutton’s final moments onstage mirror the Act One finale beautifully. Alfredo and Giorgio are now changed men and can live knowing they absolutely ruined this woman’s life for the sake of their own character development, paving the way for so many other male artists to do the same.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 25-minute intermission.
La Traviata plays Friday, March 17, 2023, at 8 pm and Saturday, March 18 at 2:30 pm presented by Virginia Opera performing at the Carpenter Theatre, 600 E Grace Street, Richmond, VA. Tickets ($21.51–$130) can be bought online here.
The full program can be found here.