Franco Zeffirelli’s productions have been steadily purged from New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but here in Italy he remains a favored son. In Milan, La Scala’s museum is observing his centennial with a season-long exhibition on the director’s work for the company, and the Arena di Verona continues to attract what appear to be near sellout audiences to the city’s first-century Roman arena with his works. The arena has moved on from his monumental production of Verdi’s Aida in recent years, but many of Zeffirelli’s other grand efforts for this venue’s distinctive summer season thrive. This includes his stalwart production of Verdi’s La traviata, a masterpiece of tragic love from Verdi’s middle period, which saw six performances this summer.

Selling out in Verona is no small feat. Its famous arena seats fifteen thousand people for normal performances, nearly four times the Met’s capacity, in an open-air environment where temperatures can reach ninety degrees Fahrenheit or hotter. Much of the seating takes the form of uncushioned stone steps. The costliest tickets exceed two hundred euros. Nevertheless, huge international audiences descend upon Verona over a busy eleven-week summer season to take in what many operagoers crave but ever fewer directors and administrators outside Italy want to give them: spectacle.

Jessica Pratt as Violetta. Photo: Courtesy of Arena di Verona.

This withholding of spectacle and the economic consequences that ensue are exemplified by the recent production history of La traviata itself. In 1989, Zeffirelli produced the opera for the Met in a lavish staging that delighted audiences and critics and played no small part in the company’s ability to sell nearly to capacity in the following decade. Both subsequent productions, however, proved to be attenuated and pallid efforts that pleased hardly anyone despite some stellar casting.

Zeffirelli’s production for Verona is a meticulous reconstruction of mid-nineteenth-century high society and the demimonde. A crowd of gamblers in white tie chase gorgeously dressed women in period costume; Alfredo and his father, Germont, are generationally opposed but sartorially parallel; Violetta, with whom Alfredo courts scandal, morphs from an elegant courtesan into a resigned consumptive, a woman in love prepared to greet death.

The stage and set of La traviata at Arena di Verona. Photo: Courtesy of Arena di Verona

The production’s decorative value will appeal to those thirsting for a more refined and inspired world. Architecturally, the production makes one of the cleverest uses of the arena’s space: the cross-sectioned, two-story habitation that dominates the stage effectively forms a solid rear wall that limits the loss of orchestral and vocal sound in the vastness of the open space behind it. Of all the operas staged in the arena, it is this production that sounds most like what one hears in an opera house.

The announced cast shifted around before this performance, allowing the Australian soprano Jessica Pratt to take the stage for one outing as Violetta. Pratt’s pleasing soprano tends toward the lighter, soubrette scale, and as a result her best singing came in the final act’s death aria, “Addio, dell’passato,” a lament to her past and a recognition that all memory of her life will inevitably fade. In Violetta’s earlier, healthier scenes, Pratt was more restrained. Violetta’s declaration of love in Act II tops any list of melodramatic highlights, but Pratt’s delivery here was rather forgettable. Her coloratura runs in the first act cabaletta “Sempre libera” fared better, with some occasional fireworks.

Francesco Meli as Alfredo and Jessica Pratt as Violetta in La traviata at Arena di Verona. Photo: Arena di Verona.

Francesco Meli, who sang Alfredo, is a fine Italian tenor in an age suffering from a dearth of solid native talent in that vital vocal range. At times he impressively communicated Alfredo’s pathos, but the portrayal was not always moving or convincing. By far the best singing of the evening belonged to Ludovic Tézier in the role of Germont. Tézier is arguably France’s best dramatic baritone and the one closest to the ideal “Verdi baritone” type. A lesser Germont inspires little sympathy: his request to Violetta to abandon Alfredo often comes across as petty and manipulative, which, of course, it is. A voice like Tézier’s, however, possesses a dimension of suave charm that conveys the despair of an older man facing heartbreaking consequences. Among the supporting cast, the bass Gabriele Sagona stood out in the comprimario role of Dr. Grenvil, who cares for the dying Violetta in the final act. It is a small role, but one that can leave a strong impression, as indeed the great George London did in his professional debut at age twenty-one.

Andrea Battistoni led a brisk and lively performance aided considerably by Verona’s large company of dancers and choristers who added spectacle to tragedy.

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