La Traviata

5 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 24, 2003
Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
La Traviata is pure gold

From the opening bleak shot of a dull Paris sky, pulling down through stark barren branches before savouring the silent stone and glass of magnificent French architecture (even as the credits roll by), a haunting, truly wonderful mood has been created without a single a note of Verdi’s timeless score being heard: this production could come from no other than Franco Zeffirelli.

Others might have run the long list of collaborators during the Prelude—overtop a few establishing shots of time and place. Instead, Zeffirelli gives us the end at the beginning as a handsome young worker falls in-love-at-first-theme (Verdi’s best-known cello declamation of eternal bond) with, at first, Violetta’s healthy portrait and then the near-death failing heroine who, inspired by her unexpected admirer, is transported back to a happier time—the party that opens Act I.

Once the opera begins, the lead vocal lines are brought to life by the incredibly gifted Teresa Stratas and the completely dependable Plácido Domingo. Alone or together, they are sympathetic to each other and equal to the many musical challenges that pepper the score. Of course, lip-syncing and the luxury of a studio recording raise their chances for success, but the camera provides further hurdles that must be jumped in ways never required in the much more restricted confines of the stage.

Cinematographer Ennio Guarnieri and editors Silvi Franca and Peter Taylor have compellingly interpreted Zeffirelli’s ideas, bringing about a visual portrait that invigorates (the series of shimmering dissolves and character juxtapositions in the second ballroom scene are incredible) and stunning (the long shot in the forest where the golden sun filters through the thick branches of the cathedral-like trees provides all the visual foreshadowing ever required).

Building on the portrait-compared-to-reality-theme-mirrors play a significant part throughout the drama: as Violetta sings of her soul (here and elsewhere Stratas has the courage to pull her voice back into compelling understatement—such range sets her apart from so many “belters”) as she confronts her face in the glass; when Germont (heartily sung—if not pitch perfect—by Cornell MacNeil) realizes the error of keeping his son apart from Violetta, his reflected image mocks him and the doomed heroine as she compares the unchanging framed picture with her deteriorating reality.

All of these highly-emotional personal revelations are brilliantly balanced by the rich and lusty Metropolitan Opera Chorus and ballet under the uncompromising direction of James Levine. He brings the score to many rousing climaxes, but I found myself wishing he would draw more range of attack from the strings who seem to have forgotten that even quick chords in accompaniment would benefit from vibrato.

As designer and director, Zeffirelli is able to ensure that the look and feel of the production mesh seamlessly with the action. In the country estate we are showered with all manner of flowers (growing and embroidered) and a dove-house that truly captures hope. Two, carved cherub-like boys (one with the smile of innocence, the other a wry expression of knowledge before his time) are employed to great effect, complementing the thoughts or feelings of Violetta and Germont as she agrees to abandon her love, knowing she will soon be as stiff as the statues.

As the film moves to its tragic conclusion, hope returns briefly when the doomed lovers reunite (much to the grinning delight via quick cutaway to the unnamed young workman). They are given one last chance at happiness when Violetta decries that she is suddenly better, but collapses, dead, with only the sun’s golden rays streaming in through her chamber’s window to keep her warm.

This exceptional film sets the bar for the near-impossible task of convincingly bringing one art-form to life using another.

Bravo! JWR

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