Credit for much of this show's success must go to set and costume designer Desmond Heeley. The first scene is reminiscent of Manet, the garden scene looks a lot like Monet, and the big party scene has got to borrow from Goya. The costumes are color-keyed to the set, and they're absolutely lovely. But it's the painterly sweep of Heeley's work--his off-kilter drapery, the soft chandeliers that look like they are melting, and the feathery strokes of light and lace everywhere--that makes the magic world convincing.
The production opens to an exquisite set that's all blues, greens, golds and grays. It's the home of the heroine, Violetta, who, having recovered from a long illness, is giving a big dinner party. Into this dazzling company comes the handsome Alfredo, a young country gentleman not used to the wiles of sophisticated Parisians. He and Violetta fall in love almost instantly, and the whole company drinks a toast to the life of hedonistic pleasure. Later, when all the guests leave, Violetta wonders if true love might not be a more worthy pursuit. But she quickly drops the idea. "Sempre livre" ("ever free") she sings, but the voice of Alfredo outside her window is a siren's call, and we know she is lost to love.
As the second act opens, Violetta has given up the merry life of the courtesan and has settled down with her tenor. But their idyllic and illicit love affair is doomed by convention as well as by history. Violetta has been selling her jewels to keep the couple in pate, and when Alfredo wakes up to the fact that somebody is paying the bills and it isn't him, he storms back to Paris to dig up some cash. That's when Alfredo's dear old dad, Giorgio, arrives to guilt-trip the poor, sick Violetta into leaving her love. And though he softens toward Violetta when he notices what a good-hearted wench she is, he reminds her that someday her looks will leave her--and then Alfredo will be sorry he ever took her on.
It's a low blow, and one the unfortunate girl cannot withstand. She returns to Paris, takes up with the scurrilous Baron (her old lover) and goes to one of those great parties where gypsies and matadors dance and tell fortunes. But it's the beginning of the end. By act three, Violetta lies sleeping in an almost empty apartment, watched over only by her faithful maid. The doctor makes a pity call, but basically, the girl has had it. Alfredo and his father show up to beg forgiveness, and she dies in her true love's arms.
Steffanie Pearce manages to embody fragile grace as the dying flower, even as her powerful soprano defies the Buell Theatre's lousy acoustics. Her clarity of voice and of movement are responsible for the sweet verity of the production. The supporting cast doesn't fare quite as well. Joseph Wolverton as Alfredo has a magnificent tenor but is more blessed in voice than in acting technique. Baritone William Parcher as Giorgio conveys a convincing strength of character and has some of the best songs in the whole show, but he resorts to gestures that are a bit overblown.
Dumas's story may sound maudlin with all its masochistic self-sacrifice, but Verdi's music reinforces the deeper issues: Conventional morality can be stifling, especially when it's selfish like Giorgio's, but love can be dangerous and cruel, too, especially when it's selfish like Alfredo's. So despite its retro vision of a woman giving up everything for her lover's happiness, Dumas's story finds its way to the late twentieth century after all.
La Traviata, through March 23 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 778-1500.