Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya and conductor Grant Gershon give L.A. Opera's 'Traviata' a new glow

Whatever you do, don't tell Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya that her performance -- or any other artist's -- is "OK." She'd rather be hated than provoke no reaction at all. "This singer was terrific, and this singer was 'OK,' what do you mean by 'OK'?" she exclaims. "How can you call any sort of art 'OK'? It's dead if it's OK."

Luckily, that's not something Poplavskaya, 32, has to worry about after jolting audiences -- and critics -- out of complacency with her passionate performance as Violetta in the Los Angeles Opera production of Verdi's "La Traviata." Poplavskaya alternates in the role with the better-known Elizabeth Futral.

Poplavskaya and L.A. Opera associate conductor Grant Gershon, 48 -- making his company podium debut with "Traviata" -- have been singled out by the critics for turning a highly traditional, recycled production of a crowd-pleasing war horse into something fresh, living and more "Oh!" than OK.

With obvious disparagement, critics tend to refer to this tragic love story as being not so much performed as "trotted out." This is particularly true of retreads like this L.A. Opera production, directed by Marta Domingo, first presented during the company's 1998-99 season after originating at Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Belgium.

But Times music critic Mark Swed and Orange County Register reviewer Tim Mangan blasted such preconceptions. Swed, who opened his commentary with the phrase "This will shock you," called relative newcomer Poplavskaya a "major sensation" and added that Gershon "proved an exacting, deeply involving Verdi conductor."

Mangan went so far as to scold himself for being a "stupid critic" for expecting L.A. Opera to phone this one in. He called Gershon's conducting "forceful, precise, incisive" and pulled out all the metaphors in describing Poplavskaya's voice: "The music poured out of her like cream and she gamboled through the coloratura demands like a deer through a meadow in springtime." (Let us hope, however, that Mangan does not meet this forceful soprano gamboling through a dark alley; he went on to describe her acting as "just OK.")

In separate conversations at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Gershon and Poplavskaya said there is no trick to breathing new life into a well-worn production except to approach every opera as if it is brand-new. (Director Domingo was unavailable for comment as she is directing another "Traviata" with San Francisco Opera -- this one transported from France in the 1850s to the flapper-era 1920s in the U.S.)

While the sets, costumes and lighting remain virtually the same for each incarnation of L.A. Opera's "Traviata," Gershon believes that the director and the conductor must re-create the opera each time for a new cast. "You can't conduct it the same way with different singers, " he says. "With this cast, it was clear that there was something special, a real connection to the truth behind these characters."

Gershon points to one unusual qualification that differentiates him from most opera conductors: Gershon, the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, is a trained singer himself. "I don't profess to sing particularly well. But I truly do breathe with the singers when I am conducting, and the orchestra players breathe with the stage as well," Gershon says.

Poplavskaya acknowledges that Gershon's voice training gives him a special touch as a conductor. "He feels the phrasing with delicacy and care; he has nice hands and very nice gestures," she says. "It helps bring the serenity that you need for the performance; there are no pulsing nerves."

Seated in her dressing room in a simple white sundress, her hair trailing down her back in a loose ponytail, Poplavskaya says she loves to have fun and jokes around during her interview; at one point, when the speaker system in her dressing room unexpectedly crackles to life, the Moscow-born performer shrugs and deadpans: "It must be the KGB."

But she's serious about portraying the tragic Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry -- and about opera. In preparing for the role, she pored over Verdi's life history at the time of composing "Traviata" to understand how it informed the work.

"If I come to work, I take it as a life sentence -- I mean, a life responsibility," she says, laughing at her first choice of words. Her performance as Violetta is different from anyone else's, Poplavskaya says, "because I am different. I work with my own soul, my own heart in this production. For me, it will always be new.

"To say that opera is getting old -- well, then we should not study arithmetic or read books if they are written in a very old-fashioned way. The exchange of great passions between people through the centuries -- it's a great message."

Poplavskaya has not yet gotten used to her transition from singer to opera star. "There is no level when you reach the top and say, 'Now I can relax,' " she says. "I think I am lucky, because I love my job. If you love your job, it doesn't matter if it makes you famous. I've heard of so many young people who for the first time have come to the theater, and I'm happy that their first 'Traviata' was me, and that they liked it.

"One of the great maestros of all time said, 'Making music is like making love,' " adds Poplavskaya, referring to an oft-used quote attributed to Arthur Rubinstein. She laughs. "So as a woman, I must say that I am very satisfied."

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