Something about La Traviata, fragrant creation from Verdi’s early mastery, takes hold no matter what. At the Los Angeles Opera it has survived several reruns of Marta Domingo’s clumsy staging; Linda Brovsky’s San Francisco Opera production, brought down to Costa Mesa’s Opera Pacific in 1999, restored Verdi’s lost lady to musical respectability. John Mauceri conducted then, and Elizabeth Futral was the Violetta. Both were on hand again at the Hollywood Bowl last week; even without staging, and with a supporting cast of variable quality, the wonder of this most heartwarming of all romantic operas lingered in the muggy air like a two-and-a-half-hour caress.
None of Verdi’s other wonderful operas has as much power as this one to undo a listener’s complacency and activate the tear ducts. The emotional impact is easily explained — up to a point, at any rate. Verdi’s audiences in the 1850s were shocked at an opera set in the present, with 1850 costumes in 1850 Paris; after Traviata, another half-century went by before another composer succeeded with a close-to-the-bone tragedy of its own time and place: Puccini in La Bohème. Any performance of either work that doesn’t draw buckets of tears at its final curtain must be reckoned a failure. Last week’s Traviata was a noble success.
One scene serves my purpose whenever someone asks for proof of what’s so great about opera. Alfredo and Violetta are blissfully tucked away in their countryside retreat; enter Alfredo’s father to pour cold water on their ménage. Their sinful existence, he informs Violetta, has stirred up scandal among the folks back home and threatens the marriage of Alfredo’s young sister. The old man is horribly obtuse to the possibility that Alfredo and Violetta might actually be in love; Verdi’s jagged, sour music exudes sarcasm and ill will. Of all Verdian villains — the Count in Il Trovatore, Carlo in La Forza del Destino, down the roster of loud baritones — Papa Germont is the one you really want to kick, the one whose meanness is interwoven with stupidity.
He is adamant; knock it off, he tells Violetta, there are plenty of studs around for her playpen. She is devastated. In what has to be the most melancholy waltz tune ever conceived (“Ah, dite alla giovine . . .”), she capitulates to his demands. In phrases cynical and unfeeling, he tells her to go ahead and weep. He leaves. Violetta must compose a farewell note to Alfredo, but she cannot find the words. In her place a solo clarinet in the orchestra pit continues the lament. Fortunate is the lover, past or present, who can hear those few minutes of utter bleakness in the opera house without an onrush of a bitter personal memory. That’s what opera can do to you, if you let it.
The Bowl is hardly the opera house of anyone’s dreams. The singers were spread across downstage, on either side of Mauceri; the chorus was up back. There was no chance of re-creating the lovely effect in Act 1, when the dance band at Violetta’s party is supposed to be heard offstage. (Maybe, in the new Bowl . . .) As compensation, however, Mauceri’s robust, nicely paced performance opened some of the cuts that ill-advised conductors still observe: Alfredo’s cabaletta at the start of Act 2, Germont’s at the act’s end, repeats of Violetta’s “Addio del passato” and “Parigi, o cara” in the last act. Futral — remember her Handel’s Cleopatra with the nudie milk bath? — was again, as in Costa Mesa, a dream Violetta, elegant in her coloratura, intense in her tragedy. Frank Lopardo was the bright, powerful Alfredo; Earle Patriarco, a Germont with a fine sense of drama but not much voice.
Word is out; all the Disney Hall hoo-ha obscures the other new piece of concert architecture in the offing. Shortly after the end of this Bowl season, the wrecking ball moves in on the orchestral shell. June 14, 2004, is the latest target date to inaugurate the new shell, designed by the Los Angeles firm of (Craig) Hodgetts and (Hsin Ming) Fung. This is already two years later than the original plan; a woefully misguided protest advanced the notion that the current shell, in use since 1929 and subjected to several architectural changes since then, was a sacred landmark demanding preservation of the same rank as the Chinese Theater’s footprints and the Hollywood Sign. An organization called Hollywood Heritage Inc., headed by a certain Robert Nudelman, filled the air with pious absurdities that vested the structure with sacrosanct status. The fight has been in the courts almost constantly since September 2000, when the county Board of Supervisors passed Zev Yaroslavsky’s motion to replace the crumbling and acoustically lousy structure.
Mr. Nudelman’s 15 minutes of fame was based on the ludicrous premise that the current Bowl is somehow worth saving. The present structure, the fourth one in that space, was by far the least interesting of the four; earlier attempts, including one designed by Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd’s son), had some kind of design personality. Structure No. 4 has undergone drastic changes over the years, including additions (later subtracted) by Frank Gehry. If anything, the new design — without all those Styrofoam balls that turn the stage housing into a mockup of the Starship Enterprise — returns the look of the Bowl stage to the 1929 original, except that the stage is now more spacious, and choristers won’t have to be jammed against the back wall (as they were for La Traviata).
Zev Yaroslavsky, the latest story goes, recently visited the Bowl structure and broke off a piece with his hand. It might be a nice tribute, and save a few bucks, if he could finish the job on his own.