For the musically minded, summer and outdoor performance are inseparable ideas. From Ravinia to Glyndebourne, Bregenz, and Aix-en-Provence, the formula is a simple one, and reliable: Find an idyllic spot with abundant natural beauty. Put on an opera or concert. Fill seats.
Rome’s greatest “natural resource,” of course, is its ancient ruins, the Baths of Caracalla being among the most celebrated. This is the massive complex that inspired the main hall of McKim, Mead & White’s original Pennsylvania Station, among others. It also happens to make a nifty setting for an operatic performance, which is exactly what it becomes in July, hosting the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.
That’s not to say the Baths offer ideal performance conditions—unlike other outdoor venues, such as Tanglewood, Caramoor, or the Santa Fe Opera, there’s no acoustically engineered roof; there’s not even a bandshell. That means there are mics on everybody: the singers, the pit, everybody. In the Sunday night performance of Verdi’s La Traviata that I attended, the orchestra, under the direction of Yves Abel, sounded especially wiry through the speakers—some individual articulations were nicely defined, but none of Abel’s grander gestures landed with much force. Simply turning up the volume 50 percent would have helped.
Readers acquainted with Michael Mayer’s neon Rigoletto, currently a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory, might find Lorenzo Mariani’s take on La Traviata naggingly familiar. In the production now running at the Baths, the American-born director has situated the action in 1920s Hollywood, his Violetta a hard-partying starlet hounded by paparazzi. Slick costumes by Silvia Aymonino and clever, swing-inspired choreography by Luciano Cannito made the party scenes unusually lively.
As with any “update,” not every choice hits home: Annina has become a strange mix of artist manager, personal assistant, and intimate companion. The seaside resort (Santa Monica?), where we find Alfredo and Violetta hiding out in Act II, is pretty effective, but as a visual metaphor for Violetta’s crumbling dreams, the slow folding-down of the cabana bar’s parasol is breathtakingly banal.
On the whole, though, Mariani’s use of the contemporary trope of celebrity flameout is actually quite a faithful reinvention of La Traviata’s tragic heroine. Her modern analogues, our Justin Biebers and Lindsay Lohans, hold more interest, to many, for their car crashes and rehab cycles than for their creative output. Likewise, we never know exactly what it is that made Violetta so famous; we have only the keen sense that her predatory society associates are secretly delighted to have a front-row seat for her spectacular fall.
Of the principal singers, none was previously known to me, but all three gave admirable performances. Valentina Varriale’s realization of Violetta was not the most technically perfect that I’ve ever heard (the cadenza at the end of “Ah, fors’è lui” was mighty rough), yet she showed a full, lyric voice with enough flexibility to reach the top of the part without overwhelming the music. Giulio Pelligra was an especially pleasant surprise as Alfredo, with a ringing tenor and exactly the sort of burning passion required for the role.
For a character who has so little actual stage time, Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, makes an outsize impression in the second act, with two of the opera’s loveliest melodies. Marcello Rosiello was a little stiff in his dramatic portrayal, but whatever warmth he held back from his stage affect he poured into his singing. He owns a full, slightly grizzled baritone, and in Sunday’s performance gave an affectingly simple reading of the pleading aria “Di Provenza il mar.” His extended duet with Violetta was one of the high points of the evening, the emotional pull of his “Pura siccome un angelo” matched by her protestation of “Non sapete quale affeto.”
A presentation like this one offers a lot to enjoy if a viewer is willing to accept certain trade-offs. You won’t get the polished performance or immersive sonic experience of sitting in a leading opera house, but that’s the price of having a third-century architectural marvel as your backdrop. In a sense, an opera at the Baths should be thought of in a separate category: it will likely disappoint anyone expecting a conventional operatic presentation. But it certainly succeeds in its own proper genre: uno spettacolo.