Conventions in performing arts can be important and useful—especially when they are violated in a way that enhances one’s appreciation of the genius of the creators of the work. When the re-creators do this they help to open a door to this creative process for the audience. This was clear in the use of the dancers and choreography in the Michigan Opera Theatre’s current production of “La Traviata”.
I mentioned in a previous post that we had been to the first two performances over the past weekend—our subscription is for opening night and the following matinee so we can see both A and B casts (and decide which, if either, we want to see again). “Traviata” is an evergreen—it has been one of the most produced operas since the repertory system began and probably will be in the top ten for as long as Italian opera has a place on the stage. This was a traditional production, with sumptuous sets and direction that emphasized the isolation of the characters and on Wednesday we were back at the opera house for the third time in five days.
One of the conventions that Verdi followed was putting a ballet in the second act. All operas staged for the Paris Opera in the mid-nineteenth century had a second act ballet—it was simply the way things were done. The ballet must be integrated somewhat into the story—one simply can’t clear the stage of the singers and bring on the dancers for twenty minutes. In “Traviata” the ballet takes place at a party and the dancers are hired entertainers who enact the story of a bullfighter, his lady friend and a bull, played by a dancer in evening clothes with a bull’s mask.
It is well choreographed and danced in this production and gets a big round of applause. After the dance is over the organizer of the party pays the dancers and they leave.
They don’t reappear as the opera was written or originally staged—Verdi put the required ballet in the required place and that was that. In this production, though, director Harry Silverstein and choreographer Joanne Cusmano used them for a shockingly effective coup de theatre at the very end of the work.
Violetta is in her apartment, dying (of course). Her loyal servant and her doctor attend her. The lover who abandoned her is about to make his entrance. It is a gripping scene. In order to point out the difference in Violetta’s current state and her former queen of the demimonde life, there are sounds of revelry from outside, echoing the two huge party scenes earlier. The libretto tells it simply:
Violetta: Today is a holiday?
Annina: Paris is going mad—it’s carnival.
Violetta: Oh, in all this merrymaking, heaven knows how many poor ones are suffering...
That’s all there is—very short and spare. The score is also economical, with only the strings playing, and only in unison chords.
What was added this time was the dancers appearing toward the back of the set. Bullfighter, his lady and the bull all costumed as before. Tinsel is thrown, there is a quick lift, and the dancer portraying the bull removes his mask to reveal a hideously grinning death’s head.
Shocking, economical, beautifully done and nowhere to be found in the libretto, score or early performing tradition. And perfect.
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