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Lyric Opera keeps it real with a ‘La Traviata’ true to characters’ inner selves

Albina Shagimuratova sings Violetta with Giorgio Berrugi as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Lyric Opera House. | Todd Rosenberg photo

Albina Shagimuratova sings Violetta with Giorgio Berrugi as Alfredo in Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Lyric Opera House. | Todd Rosenberg photo

No opera really sings unless it rings true to its psychological core, and Lyric Opera of Chicago has that rare winner in its current run of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The beloved work can become time-worn, but this version resounds with the insights of an electrifying, largely young cast and leadership crew that seems singularly focused on theatrical truth.

Director Arin Arbus, the daughter of the actor who played the psychiatrist Sidney Freedman on the audaciously funny CBS television series “MASH,” has cut her teeth in New York on Shakespeare, Ibsen and Strindberg, among playwrights who masterfully map characters’ interior struggles. This “Traviata” production is very knowing about the second-guessing that occurs when characters pause to take a second look at their lives.

‘La Traviata’
★★★★
When: Through March 22
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $39-$299
Info: lyricopera.org

And conductor Michael Christie, who has made recent marks bringing new American opera to the stage — among them “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” by Mason Bates, a former composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony — did excellent work. He encouraged the singers to indulge in their rattled characters’ most intimate reflections without losing grip of the music’s exciting forward motion.

The Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova returned to Lyric Opera to star as the experienced courtesan Violetta who, though still young and in great demand, secretly knows she is dying, thus urgently aware that if she wants to take her shot at true love, she hasn’t got much time. Cultivated by Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud since his days at the Houston Grand Opera, this bright-voiced soprano has been long known for her explosive coloratura fireworks, so it came as no surprise that she dazzled in her first turn, a party scene, trading verses of a drinking song with the hopelessly enamored and equally facile Alfredo (Giorgio Berrugi, a very special tenor, in his Lyric debut).

What came next, though, for both Shagimuratova and for the Italian tenor, was a series of extraordinary, darkening turns into the rocky emotional terrain of adult passion, where one’s own truths come crashing headlong into the pressure of fate, family and financial circumstance. The dimly lit, minimalist set designed by Riccardo Hernandez was a weak element at first, principally a shabby semicircular wall suggesting the French Empire in decline.

Later came a decadent party scene, with some costumes better suited to grotesque Faustian revels under a devil’s thumb than to the all-too-human humiliation of Violetta by a jealous and deluded Alfredo, out of control, in full view of family and friends. The classy American mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams was pleasantly diverting as the hostess, Flora. But given the vulnerability of the two troubled lovers, and the music-making of Shagimuratova and Berrugi drawn so tense and fine, the visual distractions seemed an impediment. In the final turn, there is nothing more shocking than true love on the line.

The setting in the second act, which takes place in the countryside where Violetta is hiding away blissfully with Alfredo, is a pleasant retreat, with walls that eventually fly away when the story returns to Paris. This Act 2 is the centerpiece of the opera and the best scene of the Lyric production. Alfredo’s father, the elder Germont, played by Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, makes his sudden appearance, intruding upon the shocked Violetta without Alfredo’s knowledge. Germont presses his own paternal agenda in imperious terms: Not only does he demand that she leave Alfredo forthwith, so that Alfredo’s sister may proceed to her own betrothal without a hint of family scandal, but he also tells Violetta that should be happy doing it, because it will bring divine forgiveness. Case closed.

Verdi himself had to ward off similarly imperious interference from his own relatives. His sentiments were clearly with Violetta here, and Shagimuratova is given some incredible singing as Germont ratchets up the stakes notch by notch, until the true nobility of her character dawns on him. As their rapport softens and a glimmer of father-daughter affection becomes apparent, this production reaches a peak matched only in the scenes between Alfredo and Violetta: their first awakening of love, and their reunion at virtually the moment she expires.

The attentiveness of Lyric’s opening night crowd was apparent; although applause was loud and immediate after big numbers, the extreme quiet at other times allowed for exquisitely soft playing from the tremolo strings and transfixing woodwind solos. It also should be a source of pride to Lyric that so many of its Ryan Center fellows delivered powerful supporting performances of their own: Contralto Lauren Decker, as Violetta’s maid Annina, heightened the focus of every scene she was in. Tenor Mario Rojas, as Alfredo’s friend, sounded like a future Alfredo to me. Bass-baritone David Weigel brought gravitas to Dr. Grenvil’s sad ministrations over the dying Violetta. And Ricardo José Rivera, as Violetta’s former patron Baron Douphol, summoned dignity and fury in the confrontation his rivalry requires.

Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.