By Harriet Howard Heithaus of the Naples Daily News
Part Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge,” part Toulouse-Lautrec painting, and all passion, “La Traviata” is getting sophisticated, in the name of simplicity.
Opera Naples is taking a new, minimalist production of the Verdi masterpiece to the pavilion at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples. But what’s called minimalist can be vastly more demanding than throwing frills on the piece.
James Alexander, stage director for the Opera Naples production next weekend, seems energized by the thought of clipping the trinkets off one what can be one of Verdi’s most heavily adorned works, next to “Aida”: “People are used to the lavish production, what we call the ‘chocolate box’ opera,” he said “We have the lavish salons, the huge skirts — there’s a very period look.
“But minimalism is pulling them right back. I think it’s strikingly effective in opera because it upholds the music and the text. And visually, anything that we see — any move, any color, any costume, any lighting effect — really stands out starkly, so it’s a difficult thing to pull off.”
Alexander has devised screen images with motif-punctuated, broad monocolor swaths for each backdrop, and this week Judy Hushon, costume director, had to balance star Elizabeth Caballero’s complexion, personal comfort and dramatic mission with each. There would be no green in the gambling party scene, for instance, because of its card table-felt tone that would dominate the backdrop.
Evocative color is everywhere. Caballero, as Violetta, switches color palettes with her courtesan friend, Flora (played Opera Naples Young Artist Clara Nieman), when Flora is the party hostess. As the rowdy partygoers, the Opera Naples chorus are starkly black and white, all in tuxes, including the women. It emphasizes Violetta’s isolation in a man’s world, where, as a highly paid “friend with benefits,” she must operate as a free agent.
Caballero needed a relaxed look for Violetta’s own home, but to give it some authority a peignoir — “How many people know what those are?” Alexander asked, with a sly smile — came off the rack. For its emotional “Sempre Libera” scene, a dress with some give is the choice: “If I’m not comfortable, I’m not going to sing my best,” she warned.
Costuming aside, it’s a favorite role for Caballero, a Metropolitan Opera “Boheme” veteran who has played Violetta in nine productions around the country.
“It’s great as an actor’s role as well as a singer’s role,” she said. “I find it easier to sing vocally every time and that tells me I understand it.” There’s a lot to understand: Violetta sings the famous 14-minute solo — a bel canto pinnacle, “Sempre libera” — in the first act; spars emotionally and vocally with Alfredo’s father in the second; and ends the last act in a futile deathbed reunion with Alfredo.
She can count on her dramatic skills being tested in this production. At one point, Violetta gets pushed onto the gaming table as the furiously jealous Alfredo throws money at her. But is he paying for their past relationship or attempting to buy her back from the duke who is her longtime consort?
Alexander has his own vision, but he’s happy to let the audience create theirs. He has founded his own music theater company back in his native Glasgow, Scotland, and has worked with both Scottish and British major orchestras. In this country, he has staged operas with the Atlanta and Boston symphonies, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cincinnati Opera and Aspen Music Festival .
‘I love working in U.S. theaters, because people do come up afterward and ask questions, like I don’t understand what they chorus is doing in this scene, and why are they doing it,” said Alexander, a onetime A&R team member at The Decca Record Company. “I always ask them, ‘What do you think it means?’ “I believe it can mean whatever the person who’s seeing and hearing it thinks.”
If you go
What: Opera Naples production of the Giuseppe Verdi classic, with Ramón Tebar, artistic director and James Alexander, stage director; starring Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta, Andrej Dunaev as Alfredo and Nelson Martinez as his father
When: 8 p.m. March 18 and 20
Where: Pavilion at Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, 2600 Tiburon Drive, Airport-Pulling Road just north of Vanderbilt Beach Road
Admission: VIP with dinner, $250; VIP, $125; $80, $49
To buy: La Traviata – or call 239-963-9050