I went to the Hollywood Bowl tonight for a performance of Verdi’s La traviata. It was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen – not just of this opera, but of any opera. Part of it surely had to do with the venue: The Hollywood Bowl has great acoustics, and is also one of the prettiest performance spaces I’ve ever encountered, nestling among hills, under the stars, on a perfect cool evening. (The acoustics are just as effective for popular music. My first visit to the Bowl was for a Sheryl Crow concert, just 48 hours earlier — great sound at that one, too.)
I guess I’ll come in for some contumely for saying this, but part of what I liked about tonight’s La traviata was that it was a concert version – i.e., there were singers and an orchestra, but no staging or stage “business.” (One of the singers, in the supporting role of Flora, did some “acting.” She was okay but didn’t really improve the performance.) And wouldn’t you know it: The emotions came through in the words and music, without any added histrionics necessary.
Opera people will probably consider this a heresy, because for many people, when it comes to opera, theatricality and showmanship are a feature, not a bug. But in my lifetime, we have gone a long distance toward the showmanship end of the showmanship-vs.-musicianship scale – and I think that the semi-pornographic productions one hears of in Europe are the ultimate result of that tilt. I have seen some DVDs of these European productions, and found that they are improved immensely if you switch off the picture and just listen to the audio. (Even at the Met in New York, which had — and maybe still has? — a much more conservative reputation, I sometimes found the performance more pleasant if I closed my eyes.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist, and if some dude wants to do a staging of The Abduction from the Seraglio in which everybody is totally naked except for Nazi armbands, he can go right ahead. I just don’t think it serves the music, and in my view the music comes first.
Tonight, the LA Philharmonic, the soloists, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale proved you can put on quite a musically and emotionally satisfying show – while sticking purely and solely to musicianship. Maybe some of the purists are right, when they say it doesn’t count as “opera.” Fine; call it an “oratorio” or whatever you like. The most important thing is, it’s something beautiful to experience.