It takes guts for a low-budget opera company to put on a big-budget opera, particularly one as well known as La Traviata. That doesn’t necessarily make it a great idea.
Props to the In Series, though, for pulling off a credible Traviata with just 12 singers and a string quintet. The company tends to stick with smaller productions that fit its niche of Latino-themed operettas, zarzuelas, and musicals; thus, it’s shied away from the big 19th-century operas (normally the Washington National Opera’s turf) in favor of either early classical or contemporary operas on which it can put some kind of quirky spin. When it’s ventured into more traditional repertory, as Traviata director Nick Olcott did with his Happy Days-inspired riff on Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore in 2011 (Nemorino became “Nerdorino”), the adaptations have been far from faithful, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
So regular In Series audiences could be forgiven for waiting for the corny or multicultural spin on Traviata that never comes. Instead, it’s as straightforward a take on Verdi’s tearjerker as any of the others you’ve seen many, many times before. Except this time, it’s with a bare-bones distillation of Verdi’s score without any of the woodwinds, making it difficult to tell where exactly the In Series’ comparative advantage lies. Intimacy is about it: You can practically feel Jesus Daniel Hernández’s industrial sandblaster of a tenor on your face. But next to any other Traviata, this one won’t blow you away with its originality, music, or staging, though it gets the job done.
This is not to say there isn’t some nice singing along the way. Hernández, as Alfredo, leaves the strongest impression by simply being the loudest; his booming tenor is clear and sharp, but he crowds out his partners in duets as if imagining himself in a much bigger venue than the GALA Theatre. That partner is usually soprano Randa Rouweyha (Violetta), who, in addition to balancing out Hernández, has the even more challenging task of tracking her vocals to the gradual psychological and physical deterioration of her character as she dies of consumption, the second-most entertaining portrayal of tuberculosis in the Western canon next to Val Kilmer in Tombstone. Her soprano turns from fluttery, with lots of vibrato, to anguished over the course of the three acts, with a tender denouement that might draw some sniffles if you’re not too annoyed by how long it took her to kick the bucket. But the most consistent performance comes from José Sacin as Giorgio, whose understated, self-assured baritone always hits its mark.
It’s just everything else that doesn’t quite reach the target. The set design involves moving a couple of windows and chairs to signal transitions from Paris to a country house, while the set of GALA’s concurrently running Puro Tango 2 is visible in the background. And, lacking an orchestra, music director Paul Leavitt adapts Verdi’s music to a chamber ensemble in a valiant effort that is, nonetheless, of uneven quality, straining to equal the vocal drama coming from the stage. It’s unfortunate that it’s not within the In Series’ capacity to give Verdi the full treatment, but it shouldn’t have to be. Eccentricity, innovation, and thrift are the company’s greatest strengths, and it doesn’t much matter that playing it straight isn’t one of them quite yet.
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