On Saturday night I was almost late for the opera. I was coming directly from a full day of working when I parked in my favorite $5 St. Paul parking lot at 7:20 and sprinted the 4 blocks to the Ordway to get my ticket and find my seat right as the house lights went down. I was distracted and inattentive; I’d dare say I was frazzled. I scarcely remembered what show I was about to see when the overture began. And then the overture did exactly what every overture hopes to do: it gently took hold of my attention, brought my focus to the present, made me forget about the earlier chaos, and intrigued me about the complex and fascinating tale awaiting me. As I settled into that world, the curtain raised to show a single protagonist dancing behind a shadow-y scrim: foreshadowing a story of a beautiful and tragic solitary character. And I was hooked. Even before the first moment of singing I was in love with La Traviata @ MN Opera.
When the overture ends and the full lights come up we’re transported to a grandiose party in 1850s Paris. The gowns are enormous and the suits are all made of velvet. An operatic scene of a ‘brindisi’ (party/drinking song) is quite common and sometimes feels like a cheap trick to lend a dull story moments of excitement. On Saturday night it was not common and it was not a cheap trick. The ensemble was incredible! Their singing was amazingly unified, clear, and expressive. Their acting was committed, engaging, and successful in showing our protagonist’s lifestyle. I don’t hesitate to say this was the most impressive ensemble I’ve seen at MN Opera. From the party-goers, a man named Alfredo approaches our protagonist Violetta and proclaims his love to her. “With a love that is like the pulse of the universe is how I have loved you…” By the end of this first scene I’m all in. I like the music, I like the chorus, I like the party atmosphere and the feeling that love is in the air. I’m feeling like I’ve got this production figured out. And then Nicole Cabell took her first step into the spotlight.
The character of Violetta sings in the first scene but it’s all frivolous until her first duet. When soprano Nicole Cabell hit her first high notes, every audience member around me sat up straight. Singing like hers is the reason opera exists. I could describe the precision and clarity, the power and nuance but when we’re hearing her voice none of us are analyzing it, we’re just enamored. Hearing her sing is instinctively compelling. She could walk onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and every trader would stop shouting the moment she begins. On stage, she is every audience member’s favorite character. Her struggles are our struggles and her joy is our joy. Through this duet, Violetta (and the enamored audience) are faced with the question “Oh joy that I have never known: to love and be loved. Can I reject it for the folly of my existence?” The entire audience is eating out of her hand, we are committed to everything awaiting Violetta. And, gloriously, everything awaiting Violetta in this 166 year old script is relatable and relevant.
In a nutshell, this is a story of someone who has accepted their fate to never be loved. Then love finds them. They debate whether or not to open themselves to love. They do. It is a love greater than they had ever imagined. Someone belittles them and says they’re not worthy of love. The protagonist doubts themselves and temporarily agrees they’re not. They abandon all hope and resign themselves to a loveless life. Until their heart bursts open and fights for the right to love and be loved in return. It’s a story of learning how to love and feel you deserve it. It’s a good story.
For the first 30 minutes or so I forgot that our protagonist isn’t just a random party-goer but is a courtesan. Which is to say, a prostitute. Even for 2019’s standards it’s shocking how much respect and dignity is written into the character of Violetta. She isn’t presented with any amount of crassness but rather, she’s portrayed as wise, capable, and caring. It’s fascinating to see the protagonist not be a nobleman but someone whose profession could imply a certain amount of shame. There’s an easy comparison to Pretty Woman and another to Moulin Rouge but La Traviata doesn’t much care for the grandiose. In Pretty Woman I remember the limousine scene and in Moulin Rouge the huge dances but in La Traviata everything feels very small and personal. Which is something of a magic trick because it’s a very grandiose opera with huge sets and a huge orchestra and the biggest singing in town… but yet the story is so human-sized. Even though the stage is enormous, the story is about very believable relationships that go awry in very believable ways. It’s the most humble story told in the most grand way. Verdi uses all of the grandness to make the personal scenes that much more beautiful. We see huge parties to feel the intimacy of one person professing their love in private: the contrast makes the personal more personal.
“La Traviata” can be translated as “The Fallen Woman”. I love that title in regard to the story. It feels clear that it’s not referring to her decline in health or her arguably low social standing but her fall in confidence. Perhaps it could have been called “The Doubting Woman” because she spent most of her life doubting she would ever know love or any profundity. Then, after she found her love and her profound life, in the moment her self-worth was called into question she let herself be belittled. Her doubt resurrected and she fell from her elevated life of domestic bliss. If the show is about “the fallen woman” then it’s also about “the climbing woman” who refuses to stay down.
Even now, as I write this review days after I left the theater I’m enamored with the character of Violetta and her portrayal by Ms. Cabell. But I’d be remiss to not mention the other extraordinary talent on the stage. Jesús León, Joo Won Kang, and Bergen Baker were all impeccable in their respective roles. Also, the staging by Louisa Muller was consistently engaging (and the reversed gender-roles in the mimed toreador scene was a nice touch). And if all of this wasn’t enough to get you to see this magnificent production, I should also mention that the woman sitting next to me held her hands to her face in a slow-motion gasp for the last 10 minutes of the show. That’s a pretty good endorsement. Enjoy the show.