The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliche has been around almost as long as the world’s oldest profession, but the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave nonetheless ruffled feathers when they championed a Parisian courtesan as the most virtuous character in their popular 1853 opera La Traviata. The dying young courtesan, Violetta Valery, finally finds her true love, Alfredo Germont, but must reluctantly and selflessly abandon him under pressure from his father, Giorgio, who’s worried that her past will ruin the family’s reputation.
In L.A. Opera’s current production of La Traviata at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the story is relocated to the 1920s, a potentially charming move that doesn’t always work. Diversions abound, with gold-helmeted ballet dancers flitting lightly across the stage, their tassels of coins jangling like soft sleigh bells. But director and production designer Marta Domingo’s set sometimes resembles a ’70s disco more than an Art Deco nightclub, and Violetta’s moral dilemma and fear of being scorned seem less credible given the relatively enlightened ’20s setting.
None of this ends up mattering, though, because Nino Machaidze takes control of things in the role of Violetta. The Georgian soprano imbues the softer spaces of Verdi’s elaborate melodies with an intuitive radiance and fills her side of the romantic duets with a majestic presence. As Alfredo, Arturo Chacon-Cruz has a warm, appealing tone, but he can’t help being overshadowed at times by Machaidze. Marta’s husband, L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo, unfurls a burnished baritone as the stern Giorgio, engaging in a wonderful, achingly lulling duet with Machaidze in Act Two.
Conductor James Conlon smartly administers the dynamics of Verdi’s score, guiding the orchestra seamlessly from grand swells with the chorus to the spare heartbeat ticking of gentler interludes. Without being overpowering or meekly backing down, the orchestra gives Machaidze and Domingo a deep and resonant well to dip their voices into.
L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. dwntwn. Tuesday, Sept. 23, Friday, Sept. 26, and Sunday, Sept. 28. (213) 972-8001, laopera.org
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: