There are many ways to treat Verdi's 1853 "La Traviata," deservedly among the most popular of operas. Some are more fashionable than others. The Minnesota Opera's judicious, traditionalist revival, which opened Saturday in St. Paul, will never attract the kind of attention showered on the studied audacity of high-concept updatings in Salzburg or New York. Yet the company's new tweaking of its sturdy 2003 staging, smashingly sung, captures more of the work's emotional depth and power than most trendier productions could hope to do.
That "Traviata" is a love story is a commonplace -- and a misleading one. Once past its bubbly first act, the opera is essentially a tale of sacrifice and death, its grim denouement made inevitable by a collision of irreconcilable worlds: that of the French provincial bourgeoisie (represented by the Germonts, Giorgio the father and Alfredo the son) and that of the Parisian demimonde (in the person of the consumptive courtesan Violetta Valery, the "fallen one" of the title).
Stage director Lawrence Edelson allows himself a bit of titillation early in the evening, injecting a note of lasciviousness into Violetta's great soliloquy "Sempre libera" by turning the men of the chorus into a paying audience. He also gives us a glimpse of the lovers' foreplay at the beginning of Act 2. But from the elder Germont's fateful entrance a few minutes later, Edelson and colleagues are on their best behavior, their work full of felicitous touches.
The complex, wrenching scene between Violetta and Germont following that entrance is the heart of "Traviata" and one of the finest things in opera. Elizabeth Futral and Stephen Powell play it magnificently, alive to every flicker of feeling: indignation, fear, shame, sympathy, grief, resignation. Futral, who moves as expressively as she sings, is attuned to both the vulnerability and the steeliness of her character; her crystalline soprano encompasses both the brilliant coloratura of Act 1 and the more lyrical writing of the later, darker scenes. (Verdi said the last act was the opera's best; Futral, dodging sentimentality, proves him right.) Powell's sonorous baritone vibrates with sincerity, but he wisely avoids making Germont overly sympathetic.
To the role of Alfredo, tenor Bruno Ribeiro brings a heroic timbre, superb diction and exemplary breath support; he wants only a bit more lightness and elegance. Conductor Michael Christie draws pointed, polished playing from the orchestra, though at times I wished for more Italianate warmth in the strings. The chorus, if not always on the beat, sings vividly.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.