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Review: Marina Poplavskaya triumphs in Los Angeles Opera 'La Traviata'

May 22, 2009 |  2:30 pm

Poplavskaya This will shock you.  So please put aside cynicism for a moment.
 
Yes, Los Angeles Opera has remounted Marta Domingo’s well-worn first production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” with a nonstar cast in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.  Yes, the conductor was the company’s associate conductor in his company debut Thursday night.  Yes, the company will, of course, run this popular opera, with changing casts, for a month in hopes of raising as much cash as it can to help support its costly “Ring” cycle.

But go, and go especially when Marina Poplavskaya sings Violetta (Elizabeth Futral assumes the role on June 10).  The company was smart to get this young Russian soprano now.  It won’t be long before her fees hit the ceiling; she is a major sensation.  Thursday she was supported by a respectable cast.  If no else was up to her level, not too many Verdi singers are these days.

Grant Gershon, best known as the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, proved an exacting, sensitive, deeply involving Verdi conductor.  Indeed, I could have been tricked into thinking that one of the world’s top orchestras was in the pit, so well did the L.A. Opera orchestra play.  Blindfolded, I might have even been tricked into thinking the Pavilion was acoustically satisfactory.

Perhaps it’s a good thing to have this comfortable old shoe of a production back after all.  It may not look like much, but it fits the Pavilion stage perfectly, and since the director is the wife of the company’s general director, Plácido Domingo, maybe he gets a deal with her fees as well.  Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets are built like acoustical shells and significantly help project the voices.  There needn’t be a lot of bother putting this familiar production together, so more rehearsal attention presumably was able to go to musical rehearsal.  I don’t remember a first night of anything with this company that sounded so polished.

Traviata 

Still, Poplavskaya’s magnetic Violetta is what really stands out.  Petite and pretty, she has already won over the London opera and is in the early stages of conquering the rest of the opera world. 

A natural on stage, she is fatalistic world-weary Violetta.  Her charm is unforced and never girlish.  She seems to have ability to trap men without needing to try.  She brings to Verdi’s French courtesan an enigmatic inner life. 

The voice?  She uses little vibrato, which makes her amber lower registers all the more seductive and her unsuspected volcanic power all the more shocking.  Her top is bright and tighter, although it opened as the evening went on.  The contrast between top and bottom is part of the mystery. 

Poplavskaya made a spectacle of coloratura, when asked.  She was rhythmically precise, but she makes that seem natural as well.  With body limp yet voice focused, she made her death scene mesmerizing.  Although only in her early 30s, she is said to have a repertory of over 300 works, from early music to postmodern.  What a Lulu she would make.

Tenor Massimo Giordano did not display an easy charm but looked the part of Alfredo.  An ardent, likable lover, he was also typically a little too stuck on the sound of his own healthy voice.  Andrzej Dobber’s smooth baritone made him a pleasing if wooden Germont, Alfredo’s father, who breaks up the relationship between his son and Violetta to save the family’s reputation. 

That Gershon commands forces expertly is something he has shown time and again at the Master Chorale, so the party scenes with the chorus and the many singers in small roles were handled with confidence.  But it was in his attention to the individual singers and sheer beauty of string he got from the orchestra where Gershon came into his own.  Despite the clichés on stage – the angel of death comes to walk Violetta away – this performance was musically scrubbed clean of convention.  Verdi’s harmonies stood out with emotional directness.  Inner lines were brought forth with maximum clarity.  Not a moment passed that didn’t sound right or riveting.

Gershon has always shown a talent for opera.  He chose the choral world instead.  But after this “Traviata,” I don’t expect the opera companies are going to leave him alone.   

"La Traviata," Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 30, June 6 and 10; 1 p.m. June 3; 2 p.m. June 14 and 21; $20-$250; (213) 972-8001.  Running time 2 hours, 55 minutes.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: Marina Poplavskaya, top, and Timo Nunez in "La Traviata." Credit: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times.

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