A low note for 'Traviata'

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Opera has given itself less than two weeks to find the money needed to salvage a star-studded revival of Verdi's "La Traviata" that the company trumpeted at the beginning of the year as the glittery opener of its 2006-07 season.

According to an L.A. Opera spokesman, the company does not currently have the funds to fulfill a contractual commitment it made to soprano Renee Fleming to produce a video record of this staging of Verdi's opera at the same time that it mounts three performances in September. Unofficial estimates put the price tag for the taping at $600,000.

This is not the first hitch the production has faced since the announcement in January that Fleming would be joined by the magnetic baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and rising tenor Rolando Villazon for the performances, also scheduled to mark conductor James Conlon's debut as the company's music director.

Already, one of the starry trio has dropped out. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled that Fleming had balked at appearing in the production, to be directed by Marta Domingo, wife of company general director Placido Domingo.

The first hint of trouble came in mid-May. That's when the company announced that Hvorostovsky had withdrawn because of a scheduling conflict and that Renato Bruson would step in for him.

Bruson is highly regarded; he has had a 33-year professional association with conductor Riccardo Muti, late of Italy's famed La Scala opera house. But many would say he lacks the stage charisma of the 26-years-younger Hvorostovsky.

That announcement also sparked some confusion. In the company's original description of the coming season, it had said it would be reviving a production directed by Marta Domingo. At the time, there was just one, first seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1999 and repeated in 2001.

This was a traditional version, setting Verdi's tale of a doomed courtesan -- based on the same source as the classic Greta Garbo film "Camille" -- in mid-19th century Paris and environs.

But last month, a new Marta Domingo production of "La Traviata" closed L.A. Opera's 2005-06 season. This one, which was generally panned, moved the action up to the 1920s and cast Violetta (sung by Elizabeth Futral) as a flapper floozy. And the company, in revealing that Bruson would be replacing Hvorostovsky, mistakenly referred to this second production as the one that would be mounted in September.

Shortly, on the Internet and elsewhere, speculation began that Fleming was asserting diva privileges and refusing to be in the new production because she disliked it. All concerned insist this conjecturing was simply the result of a misunderstanding.

"There are a lot of rumors out there," Fleming's New York publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, acknowledged this week. "But the truth is, this has been a traditional production from Day 1. By contract, from the very beginning, it was understood that she would do a traditional production so that a DVD can be made. Renee didn't even know until recently that there was a second production."

L.A. Opera spokesman Gary Murphy concurred. "The company has had an agreement with Ms. Fleming to do a traditional production for about two years, and there will be a DVD component as part of that agreement."

Which brings up the matter of money.

The company says it had set aside funds to finance both the refurbishing of the 1999 production and the videotaping, but that the wear and tear on the sets, which have been lent to other companies, was greater than it had realized. So now it has to come up with additional money to pay for making the DVD, which, according to Falcone, is to be issued by Decca.

Murphy said this week that the company was in the process of raising the extra cash.

"We're looking at a July 20 deadline," he said. "We fully expect to raise the money."

As of this week, individual tickets for the three "Traviatas" -- Sept. 9, 12 and 17 -- are on sale, with a top price of $500 and a low of $35. The company says it is too soon to say what the response has been. For now, some potential ticket buyers may be preferring to stay tuned.

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