Following a fabulous Freischütz, Wolf Trap Opera returned to its blockbuster summer event, a fully-staged, one-off La traviata, artificially amplified within an inch of its life, in the gargantuan, open-air Filene Center. The house was packed to the gills, the first time it had been so for an opera since 2020, the heat and humidity gave no indication of what this week would hold, and we were promised the “stars of tomorrow” warbling beneath the stars of today. Andiamo!
Traviata remains one of the few standard rep operas of which I don’t tire of hearing, maybe because it consistently rewards both performers and audience in equal measure. While its success in performance can be secured by a strong Violetta, it even makes an impact with a weaker singer at the center. Yet with three leads who were not quite right, this Traviata remained firmly Beltway-bound and by the time I had gotten home, the 45-minute traffic jam to leave the parking lot was eminently fresher in my mind than the evening’s performance.
I do not mean to insinuate that Chanáe Curtis is a weak singer, nor do I mean to damn her with faint praise. Her clean and competent Violetta is in the mold of, say, a Patricia Racette; she has all the notes, many of which emanate from a plush, generic-sounding middle voice with more wiry high notes and a very occasional reach into a paler chest register, her coloratura is gingerly delivered, and she has nary a hint of the urbane sprezzatura that would allow a party girl to keep pace.
This was the healthiest Violetta I’ve ever seen. While coughing isn’t one of the directions in Verdi’s score, illness hovers over the opera from its first measure yet remained dissonantly absent from Curtis’s portrayal. Staggering a few steps and then fainting every so often suggests vertigo more than tuberculosis. And her dewy appearance in the final act made her death a genuine surprise, even though the music and words had been preparing us for it since the beginning.
What she does have going for her, however, is a refreshing responsiveness to the music as a performer. Whether she inspired director Emma Griffin or vice versa, Violetta’s solo moments tended to have greater immediacy and greater musicality than the mostly traditional (if sometimes nonsensically metaphysical) production otherwise contained.
Take, for example, the thundering chorus of the departing guests from the Act I party. It’s a passage I have always found startlingly abrupt and not a little bit sinister with its relentless speed and alternating, repeated phrases between the men and women. Here, while the Wolf Trap Opera Chorus hammered on, sounding somehow spare despite their cavernously manipulated acoustic, Curtis, downstage left, writhed, seemingly buffeted by the music. Inside the Paris of this production or inside Violetta’s mind, what a fabulous detail! And there were other smart touches like this one, but for the most part, if you blinked, you missed them.
Richard Trey Smagur seemed at first to have found a similar sense of theatricality by presenting as a rather meek, boyish Alfredo, delivering a surprisingly quiet and gentle brindisi right out of the gate. But it fast became apparent that his burly voice is already better suited for Radames than it is for Alfredo, and he seems to know that better than anyone else.
He still sang with considerable elegance despite reigning in his natural volume and resonance, but the overall effect was unsatisfying considering the thrilling power behind the few phrases during which he did allow himself to sing full-out. Despite the tendency of the tone to thicken and words to lose some specificity in the upper reaches, his is still a voice with depth and expressiveness. If only it had a slightly more congenial vehicle to display it.
Kidon Choi, but for an unshakable youthfulness, was the most ideal for his part as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. “Di Provenza il mar” won deservedly long applause as the evening’s finest single aria with his plangent upper register and deeply invested dramatic flair gradually helping to unfurl it. Gravitas, and age, will surely come to him with time in this role. But on Friday, his laudable eagerness couldn’t compensate for the lack of chemistry with Violetta in his Act II duet (to be fair, this Violetta didn’t have chemistry with either of her counterparts).
Despite the principal characters, the ensemble had some true standouts, namely Matthew Goodheart as a particularly gallant Gaston with a smooth and forthright tenor and Ruby Dibble as a seductively sung Flora, even if she was done up like Belle Watling.
The National Symphony Orchestra, under Roberto Kalb, fell in line with the generally blah color of the performance. While Kalb is quick to provide a handsome flourish from a particular section of the orchestra, his tempi were erratic and, often, just damn slow.
Opera at Wolf Trap is not quite done for the summer (a production of Susannah back at the Barns remains), but this Traviata did mark the final performance I’ll cover as the writer responsible for the DMV Parterre beat. And for that, I express plenty of gratitude to La Cieca, my esteemed predecessor Alex Baker, and the cultural organizations that valiantly try (and often succeed) at injecting a town badly in need of empathy with a bit of culture. Next stop: New England!