Anachronism has become almost irresistible for opera directors. The violence of transposition—Rameau’s Platée in a Village bar, Così fan tutte in a postmodern suburb, Wagner’s Nibelungs in what might pass for a nineteenth-century sewage system, the Scottish Highlanders of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago diverted to the cracked cement playground of some abandoned inner-city neighborhood—seems the quickest and surest way to defamiliarize and thereby force new attention. Operas, it is thought, need to be regularly wrenched out of their inherited frame of reference to avoid taking on the fossilized predictability of a coronation or an alumni reunion. Only by cutting it loose from its historical moorings, as so many directors think, can an opera escape the curse of the museum or waxworks and form fresh and perhaps jarring associations in the perpetual present that is its real home. Such at least is the theory, generally decried by those who prefer their operas to be little changed or fear their being pitched into settings that undermine both the music and the motives of the composers and librettists.
Jonathan Miller has been as apt as anyone at such relocations, setting Rigoletto among the mafia dons of New York’s Little Italy and, perhaps most notoriously, moving The Mikado from Japan to the England of its original audience. These were radical changes but not of the kind that aims to subvert or demystify the works they transpose; in fact they did no fundamental violence to the works in question, revealing rather that Rigoletto was as if written to be at home among gangsters, and that The Mikado in a Victorian setting began to seem almost naturalistic in its observation of manners.
It was interesting, then, to learn that Miller’s new production of La Traviata at Glimmerglass this summer—his most recent treatment of a work he has staged a number of times over the past three decades—would resist any impulse toward time-shifting or drastic stylization. It would be set, as intended by Verdi and his librettists, in Paris around 1850. But any premonition that this might be nothing more than a meticulous exercise in historical reconstruction was set to rest when I saw the production in July. The almost astringent exactness of Miller’s mise-en-scène, in conjunction with Isabella Bywater’s production design, a rigorously pared-down version of period opulence, made it possible to see this most familiar of works almost as if for the first time.
La Traviata is an opera impossible to kill but correspondingly difficult to restore to the shock of a first encounter. The myth of which it is the most permanently gratifying statement has been too familiar for too long to be easily reimagined. As far back as 1938 the pop crooner Kenny Baker, playing a musically gifted short-order cook in the Technicolor revue The Goldwyn Follies, could shout out knowingly “Traviata! That’s a honey!… A lady what died of a broken heart and a slight cough!” before launching into …