Verdi's "La Traviata" may be the most popular work in the entire Lyric Opera repertory, having appeared in 14 of the company's 59 seasons, beginning with its very first in 1954, when Maria Callas sang the title role. Given the familiarity of the story and its hit parade of beloved arias, some would imagine the work practically plays itself.
But it is precisely because the lyric tragedy of Violetta Valery, the consumptive Parisian courtesan who is forced to abandon the only man she's ever truly loved, for the sake of preserving his family honor, is so familiar that it requires extra care from its interpreters so that the opera doesn't feel like it's unfolding by rote.
It would be nice to be able to report that Lyric's new production of this melodious tearjerker, which opened Wednesday night at the Civic Opera House, got such special treatment. What we had instead was an uneven "Traviata," unobjectionable on musical, dramatic and scenic grounds, that failed to touch the heart in the way exceptional performances of Verdi's middle-period masterpiece can do.
Lyric is making a point of presenting "Traviata" without cuts, for the first time in its history. This insistence on Urtext values would mean more were all the principal singers able to make something more dramatically meaningful of the restored verses. Heading the cast was Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, in her Lyric debut as the eponymous lady of the camellias. Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja portrayed her lover, Alfredo, and American baritone Quinn Kelsey sang Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont. But only Calleja, returning in triumph to the role of his Lyric debut, in 2007, really managed to capitalize on the restored music.
Director Arin Arbus is the latest in a series of directors of little previous operatic staging experience whom Lyric general director Anthony Freud is bringing to Chicago from the worlds of the legitimate theater and Broadway. Arbus, who is associate artistic director of New York's Theatre for a New Audience, has mounted only one opera before this: Britten's "The Rape of Lucretia," for Houston Grand Opera in 2012.
The prospect of a feminist perspective on Violetta's heartrending tale was certainly intriguing, but Arbus was able to deliver no conspicuous insights of her own beyond simply gilding the Verdian lily. The stark, minimalist sets of Riccardo Hernandez retained the original Second French Empire setting with sometimes jarring modern touches applied to the designs.
An off-white semicircle enclosed Violetta's symbolically empty salon, within which party guests frolicked in designer Cait O'Connor's decadent costumes, which included outrageous bustles, Marie Antoinette wigs and gilded angel-wings. The heroine's country house looked out on a giant framed photograph of a sepia-tinged forest. Not so-delicious decadence returned in the quasi-Spanish dancing of Flora Bervoix's party, complete with skeletal bulls and cross-dressing matadors. For Act 3, the stage was kept bare, save for Violetta's deathbed.
It's often said that Verdi wrote the courtesan's music with three different voices in mind: a light, leggero soprano for the first act, a lyric voice for the second and a dramatic for the third.
A striking beauty blessed with a bright, ravishing timbre and top notes like laser beams, Rebeka had what it took to nail her big aria (with its restored second verse) and florid cabaletta in Act I. The rest of her performance disappointed. The emotionally buffeted Violetta of Act 2 and the dying Violetta of Act 3 needed more oomph in the middle and bottom registers and a keener sense of dramatic involvement in the characterization. Neither Violetta's noble act of self-sacrifice nor her farewell to earthly things, the aria "Addio del passato," really tugged at the requisite heartstrings.
Not that the emotional punch of the Violetta-Germont confrontation in Act 2 was helped by Kelsey's somewhat growly, if voluminous sound and the condescending smugness and lack of sympathy with which Alfredo's father treated his son's lover. Fortunately the Ryan Center alumnus was able to warm and soften his timbre for a winning "Di Provenza il mar," in which dad tried to comfort his grieving son by awakening nostalgia for their home in Provence.
Thank goodness for Calleja, a handsome Alfredo whose easy outpouring of burnished tone and ardent manner were everything one looks for in the role of the naïve country boy who seeks true love in the fleshpots of the Parisian demimonde. Calleja is the main reason to catch this new "Traviata."
Conductor Massimo Zanetti at times gave the impression he was out to set a new land speed record in his tempos, but the singers, orchestra and chorus kept pace and coordination between pit and stage was good. The man knows his Verdi, and his idiomatic authority was undeniable. The trusty Lyric chorus, prepared by Michael Black, acquitted itself nicely in its varied duties.
The supporting singers, most of them Ryan Opera Center members, also did their jobs well. They included J'nai Bridges as Flora, Will Liverman as the Marquis d'Obigny, Nicholas Pallesen as Baron Douphol, Richard Ollarsaba as Dr. Grenvil, Adam Bonanni as Gastone and Julie Anne Miller as Annina.
O'Connor designed the creepy puppets, Austin McCormick the lurid, gender-bending choreography, Marcus Doshi the atmospheric lighting.
Lyric Opera's new production of Verdi's "La Traviata" plays through Dec. 20 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $34-$244; 312-332-2244, lyricopera.org.