Is there anything new left to say about La Traviata?
Verdi's tune-soaked tear-jerker continues to pack in audiences more than 160 years after it was written, and opera companies have tried virtually every angle to revivify the story of Violetta, a tubercular courtesan who takes a shot at love and loses.
Minnesota Opera's new production opened Saturday evening at the Ordway, and it steered a solidly conservative course through Verdi's masterpiece.
Isabella Bywater's set for Act 1 showed a conventional 19th-century interior, the flaked walls possibly symbolizing the decline that underlies the surface glamour of Violetta's Parisian lifestyle.
Disappointingly, the same set stayed in place for the opening scene of Act 2, which takes place in "a country house outside Paris."
Not doing more to signal this major change of location and atmosphere seemed lazy and was potentially confusing for the audience.
It was one of several opportunities missed to make the action more visually informative and dramatic.
Violetta's crucial decision to renounce her lover Alfredo in Act 2 fell relatively flat, with few of the heroine's roiling emotions mirrored in physical gestures or movement.
The choral scenes in Acts 1 and 2 were also contradictory. Some bubbled with kinetic energy, while others turned deflatingly stiff and static.
Musically this was, however, a consistently impressive evening. Soprano Nicole Cabell's Violetta was full of vim and temperament, and she dispatched the dizzy-making coloratura of her paean to freedom "Sempre libera" with impressive abandon.
The Mexican tenor Jesús León matched Cabell in fervor and commitment as Alfredo. His fast vibrato took some adjusting to, but his full-toned ardor and supple inflections made the character's attachment to Violetta believable.
León's fiery temperament erupted in the gambling scene of Act 2, where he hurled his winnings at Violetta in humiliating payment for her "services." It's a devastating moment and was viscerally realized in director Louisa Muller's staging.
Alfredo's father Giorgio Germont plays a crucial role by breaking up his son's relationship with a woman he regards as morally "fallen."
South Korean baritone Joo Won Kang sang the part with riveting sonority, catching the character's implacability but also an element of decency and human dignity.
Costumes were handsomely of the 19th century, though more could have been done to differentiate Violetta from her upper-class acolytes. As essentially a high-society prostitute, she is separated from them by class and outlook, a fact that went largely unacknowledged visually.
The chorus sang excellently, and conductor Christopher Franklin drew idiomatic, crisply expressive playing from the orchestra.
Violetta's death scene was touchingly choreographed by director Muller, although Cabell's reading of the letter from Alfredo's father was compromised by the backward placing of her bed on the set.
Overall, this was a reliably told Traviata with particularly strong singing. If the staging occasionally veered toward the safe and conventional, it will surely appeal to those who like their classic operas unimpeded by modish updates, which can irritate as often as they enlighten.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.