RIGA - There is no clear measure to tell us whether an opening night has been successful or not - this sort of gauge is privately tucked away in the hearts of its audience.
Describing opera is a challenging task. Most art lovers will probably say it’s impossible simply because of the differences in our ways of appreciation: some enjoy melodic arias, their eyes half closed, where some are mesmerized by extravagant costumes, while others might try to take in the entire display and sounds as a whole.
One thing is for sure, opera is an intimate, personal experience. So, when a few years back I spotted an amusing review on The Latvian National Opera’s Web site describing the new Traviata as something that simply “didn’t pay back,” I began paying closer attention to Verdi’s 1853 “The Fallen Woman” in differing countries, in differing opera houses, comparing them in their emotional and spiritual value to myself.
How does one share an opera experience?
When it comes to La Traviata, for me it’s always been a path through my own emotions. There’s the classic drinking song in the first act with its jovial lift that simply makes me want to stand up, raise a glass of wine and exclaim “Libiamo!” along with the stage performers.
Then there is the heavy and complex “Amami Alfredo” that Violetta sings to her lover right before departing. This short line usually draws upon an incredible depth of melancholy and sadness - to this day, I believe that if my heart doesn’t sink along with hers, and I don’t feel at least two hot tears welling underneath my eyelids, the show has been nothing more than a troupe of professionals singing.
And then there is the end when Violetta collapses and dies right in his arms, taking their impossible love to another, hopefully better, world and leaving the audience with a tightening knot in the throat.
These three are my favorite moments, when the dialogues between two existences are the strongest: there is the physical reality in which they are simple human beings acting out their roles through masterfully composed music, and a secret, much less notable space where the two artists connect with their souls. I like to use these moments in La Traviata for reference as my margins when rating any opera performance.
One of the most impressive places for this age-old art form is Arena di Verona. And since Italians are among the oldest opera lovers, their standards are unnaturally high. It’s hard to imagine an audience going home after La Traviata at Arena di Verona, thinking it hadn’t “paid back.”
The same can be said for La Scala in Milan. Each staging at La Scala tends to beat its predecessor in ingenuity and shock-value, which isn’t bad as long as the avant-garde-loving directors keep one eye on the emotional depth of this fantastic love story.
The Vienna State Opera is the very opposite of these two. Austria has housed many composers and is mainly centered around opera’s melodic values. These performances captivate audiences with their instrumental and vocal resonance. Many set designs nowadays tend to be on the modern side and might disappoint those seeking productions rich in period style.
Another example of a relatively cutting-edge approach might be The Royal Opera House in London. It sometimes stages classical shows, like La Traviata, in English. The Royal Opera House performances can also lean towards innovation, inviting fashionable clothing and stage designs.
Last, but not least of my favorites is The Latvian National Opera in Riga, which still presents one of the best Traviatas I’ve seen. Andrejs Zagars, general director of the Latvian National Opera, may be into politics, but he must have a soft spot for creative and entertaining opera - and I am not talking about the topless girls that briefly appear in the second act.
Cultural Riga is largely a small and undiscovered treasure for old Europe. This might be one of the reasons Latvians thrive in pleasant surprises - it seems they like to go the extra mile for necessary recognition. Riga’s La Traviatas not only “pay back,” but leave sensitive spectators in crocodile tears seeing Violetta and Alfredo’s passionate performances blend in such an intense emotional unison that one thing seems for sure: Latvia might be on the colder side weather-wise, but there is more than enough heat inside its people’s souls to create sensational opera performances.
Connecting to opera will always be, as Richard Gere described it in Pretty Woman: “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.”