Composer: Giuseppe Verdi Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-332-2244, ext. 5600, or www.lyricopera.org; $54-$274. Runs through: Dec. 20
It's clear that Lyric Opera of Chicago general director Anthony Freud is on a mission to refresh or replace several of the company's decades-old core repertory productions. The Lyric's new La Traviata by director Arin Arbus ( replacing out director Frank Galati's previous staging from 1993 ) is one of seven new or new-to-Chicago productions this season.
Now opera traditionalists afraid that Arbus ( who has brought along many young New York-based artists to collaborate at the Lyric ) might have tinkered or modernized Verdi's 1853 romantic tragedy need not fear. This La Traviata is set circa 1860 and Arbus and her design team have found creative ways for the drama to feel fresh within its period setting.
For instance, Arbus gives the sickly courtesan Violetta ( Marina Rebeka ) and her devoted maid, Annina ( Julie Anne Miller ), pantomimed business showing her exhausted state in pre-party preparations or on her sickbed during the opening orchestra interludes to Acts I and IV. Arbus and set designer Ricardo Hernandez also create a simple Act II country backdrop that allows for a rapid change to the riotous Act III Spanish-themed party of Flora Bervoix ( J'Nai Bridges ) that features some very earthy dancing of street performers vigorously choreographed by Austin McCormick.
The costumes by Cait O'Connor are also particularly lush, especially in the party scenes of a decadent 18th century Versailles Court-inspired costume ball for Act I. O'Connor's deep Spanish reds and overtly symbolic skeletal bull puppets in Act III were also a lively wonder to behold. There's also some subtle, but extremely impact-filled, shadowy projection design work by designer Christopher Ash.
Hernandez's curving back walls for Acts I and III were a bit problematic, since they created some odd sound dynamics based upon the performers' positions onstage ( they were also a bit too reminiscent of the distinctive curved back wall in director Willy Decker's famed La Traviata that debuted in 2005 at Salzburg ).
Musically, the Lyric is touting Italian conductor Massimo Zanetti's welcome decision to perform La Traviata uncut and as originally printed ( no interpolated high note for Violetta at the end of the iconic "Sempre libera" aria ).
The cast is very solid, though some traditionalists might take issue with Latvian soprano Rebekah's overly bright sound that just avoids stridency as Violetta. Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja makes for a very ardent Alfredo, though he appears to be a bit too close in age to his stern father Giorgio Germont, nicely sung by Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey ( even though I would have liked more of a stiffly stern portrayal ).
So even though the Lyric's new La Traviata is very traditional, it avoids feeling overly fusty. Arbus shows that a period approach can be just as lively as an updating.