A tragic tale of empty pleasures and unbearable sacrifice

The weekend saw a very special guest singing on the stage at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. The Los Angeles Opera’s production of Verdi’s tragedy, ‘La Traviata’ was proud to have the living legend, Placido Domingo, sing the weighty baritone role of Giorgio Germont for two nights, and on Sunday he will be conducting from the pit.
Keeping it in the family, the maestro’s wife, Mexican-born Marta Ornelas, directed the production which premiered in Wallonie, Belgium, in 1997.
On opening night Mrs Domingo gave an enlightening pre-performance talk which gave a female and human perspective on ‘the fallen woman’. She was a real-life high-society courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who tragically died aged 23 of tuberculosis in Paris and on whom Alexandre Dumas based his play, ‘La Dame aux Camélias’ on which the opera is based.
Striking in this production were the exuberant stage sets and costumes, designed by the internationally acclaimed Italian, Giovanni Agostinucci, who has worked with the most eminent directors of the theatre world.
When the curtain rose on Act Two scene two, for the first time in ROHM’s history the voluptuous scenery got an applause in its own right for its stunning red velvet interpretation of a nineteenth-century salon of the demi-monde.
The sweeping staircase brought a troupe of six dancing gypsies, ‘Noi siamo zingarelle’ and a matador, ‘Di Madride, noi siam Mattadori’, from the leading Spanish, Antonio Gades Company, choreographed with passion for this Muscat performance.
It was a central highlight of the drama, with members of the ‘Chorus of Teatro Massimo di Palermo’, dressed in their petticoats on the balconies and in beautiful ball-gowns at Flora’s party. Fellow courtesan, Flora was interpreted by the beautiful 33-year-old Canadian mezzosoprano, Wallis Giunta. Noticeable throughout the performance was the youthful beauty and acting skills of all the bright young things. The Orchestra of Teatro Massimo di Palermo was conducted by the equally youthful and vibrant Venezuelan, Doming Hindoyan.

Violetta’s three costumes reflected the trajectory of her life and tragedy, from the magnificent, bejewelled white gown at her Parisian Garden Party in Act One, to her less glamorous attire in reduced circumstances of her country house in Act Two, and her consumptive, almost blue appearance without make-up, dressed in her night-shift and loose hair in the final Act, literally on her death-bed.
In the title role, the impossibly talented 32-year-old Russian-Armenian soprano, Kristina Mkhitaryan, was simply superb as the ‘most adored demi-mondaine in Paris’. In Act One, ‘Sempre Libera’, the soaring Ode to Freedom, demonstrated her infallible coloratura acrobatics. Opposite her as the handsome, naïve Alfredo was Mexican tenor, Arturo Chacón-Cruz who stole hearts on and off the stage.
The opening scene in Violetta’s House in 1847 Paris was based on a real house and garden outside Paris visited by the Director, and conjured the mood and atmosphere of La Belle Epoch with attention to minute details of decor and lighting. Among the guests were Dumas himself and Franz Liszt, both fascinated by Duplessis, along with Violetta’s ‘protector’, Baron Douphol who was played with charismatic presence by Italian Baritone, Omar Kamata. To complete the celebrations, Tenor Saverio Pugliese sang the role of Alfredo’s friend Gastone with charming poise, and together they raised their glasses to a joyful, if somewhat restrained, ‘Brindisi Chorus’ (Let’s drink from joyful cups) as the musical climax of Act One.
The entrance of Placido Domingo, bespectacled and besuited as Germont, Alfredo’s father, was met with spontaneous applause. Arguably the draw for the production, Domingo has lost nothing of his charisma and stage presence, and his performance grew in the strength of character and warmth of voice as the opera developed. His duet with Mkhitaryan, ‘Pure siccome un angelo’ was touchingly moving as Germont tried to persuade Violetta to sacrifice her love for Alfredo to save the family name.
Finally by Act Three, Alfredo returned to the dying heroine and the most beautiful aria, ‘Parigi, o caro’ dreaming of returning to Paris in eternal bliss reflected unimaginable pathos between Kristina and Arturo. In the final quintet, ‘Prendi, quest’è l’immagine’ after Placido – now almost a father to Violetta and filled with remorse – realised the futility of the situation and the tragedy of true love, was spine-tingling for its ensemble singing. Violetta’s maid, Annina, was portrayed demurely by the Italian Soprano, Anna Bordignon, while Dr Grenvil was performed with a vocal maturity beyond his twenty-eight years by Alabama-born Bass-baritone, Nicholas Brownlee.
On Sunday Maestro Domingo will conduct the orchestra while two new young rising stars will play Violetta and Germont: Maria Mudryak will interpret the lead role while the deceptively youthful 34-year-old Verona-born Simone Piazzola will sing Alfredo’s father. This will also be a spectacular performance of equal weight as these young singers gave a sample of their abilities just last Saturday. There is no doubt that Muscat is blessed to have hosted all these talented performers in ‘La Traviata’ at the weekend.

Story by Georgina Benison
Photos by Khalid Al Busaidi