Verdi’s La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. The lead role of Violetta Valéry has been sung by the world’s great sopranos: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto, Reneé Fleming, and Angela Gheorghiu. When the curtain rises on Saturday night’s gala opening of the new LA Opera season, Nino Machaidze will for the first time take on one of opera’s great tragic roles.
In a plot that sounds like that of Baz Luhrmann’s film Moulin Rouge, Violetta, a courtesan, knows that her days are numbered. When she meets Alfredo (Arturo Chacón-Cruz) at a party, his expression of love forces Violetta to think about what she wants for the rest of her life. Alfredo’s father, Germont (Plácido Domingo), asks her to end the relationship because he doesn’t trust her intentions. She takes up with another lover. Will real love win out before she succumbs?
Machaidze, who was born in the Republic of Georgia, has performed all over the world in such operas as Lucia di Lammermoor, L’elisir d’amore, and she closed LA Opera’s last season with Thåis. But she has always hesitated before tackling Violetta. “Now I feel that I’m ready,” she says just before a recent rehearsal. “La Traviata is not just a coloratura part. It starts like this, but then it becomes really lyrical and dramatic. If you don’t have a solid big center, you can’t do this part. It will not convince.”
She says the role is more demanding than people think. “A lot of sopranos are thinking, ‘I have good technique and I have high notes so I can do it.’ No. They think that Violetta is ‘sempre libera,’ the first aria. ‘Sempre libera’ is absolutely the one part that never repeats in this opera in three hours of music. ‘Sempre libera’ is three minutes and that’s it. Sometimes you open the score and you see the music and you start to think ‘Oh my God, I feel this music. I feel this character.’ Violetta was exactly this. This is the right moment.”
Domingo, who has the unique position of having played Alfredo many times before and now finds himself playing that character’s father, agrees that Machaidze was right to wait. “Some singers, especially the young singers like Nino, with tremendous talent and already a tremendous career, they are very respectful about certain parts. La Traviata is not only the perfect role, but the difficulties vocally and artistically make any soprano think it over before she does it. She’s right. She was probably offered [this role] several years ago.”
When asked what her particular stamp on the role will be, Machaidze offers a surprising answer. “I’m not playing Violetta. My acting is so minimal. I’m just singing and with [director] Marta Domingo we create this kind of acting that everybody says is so moving. It’s more touching than if you are [she pretends to sob]. I just try to really put in high level words and music and try to understand it as it is written.”
Her journey to prepare for the role included performing two of the opera’s arias on her 2013 solo recording, Arias & Scenes. “That’s when I knew I was ready,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I knew already this was the most amazing music and most amazing opera ever. I’m completely in love with this opera. I just can’t wait. If perfection exists it’s La Traviata.”