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‘La Traviata’ shimmers at the Ordway; a weekend of nontraditional performances

There’s a growing appetite for performances that don’t happen in the same places in the same ways.

La Traviata
Nicole Cabell as Violetta Valéry and Jesús León as Alfredo Germont in Minnesota Opera’s production of "La Traviata."
Photo by Dan Norman

To close its 2018-19 season, Minnesota Opera is presenting a longer-than-usual run of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” It continues through Sunday, May 19, with four performances remaining, including tonight’s (Tuesday, May 14). If you’ve been on the fence about seeing this, tickets are still available, some for $25.

The most popular opera in the world, Verdi’s masterpiece overflows with spectacular music. This production uses sets and costumes that were originally created for the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. (It’s common for opera companies to rent productions from each other.) While some have found the sets too spare and the costumes too predictable, we felt just the opposite. We loved the minimalism of this production, against which the music shimmers and soars, and the women’s full, pale tulle skirts looked like something out of Degas.

In a time when works from the canon are being judged, in part, by how women are treated, “Traviata” doesn’t fare too badly, for an opera set in 1850s Paris that premiered in 1853. True, our heroine, Violetta, is a so-called fallen woman, which makes her ineligible for happiness with a wealthy man’s son, according to the rules of the day. There’s a cringe-worthy public shaming scene in the second act in which the mob of partygoers sides with Violetta, not the shamer, an interesting twist. She’s also a woman of dignity, integrity and innate kindness, and even her lover’s pompous father eventually realizes her worth.

Stage director Louisa Muller sees “La Traviata” as “the story of a woman fighting desperately to determine her own fate in the face of insurmountable obstacles … Violetta is victimized by her society and her circumstances, but she is no victim.”

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Minnesota Opera has double-cast the principals. We saw Nicole Cabell as Violetta, Jesús León as Alfredo and Joo Won Kang as Giorgio Germont. Cabell and León have real chemistry. Christopher Franklin and Andrew Whitfield are sharing the conductor’s podium; we saw Franklin and the orchestra sounded great. Plus there’s a stage-filling chorus of 40. Tonight (Tuesday, May 14), Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. FMI and tickets ($25-223).

One weekend, two nontraditional performances

There’s a growing appetite for performances that don’t happen in the same places in the same ways. Wendy Knox staged Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Visit” at the Minnesota Transportation Museum. Pramila Vasudevan’s Aniccha Arts danced in a Bloomington parking garage. The SPCO and Accordo now perform several times each year at Icehouse, a venue that’s not a concert hall.

Last weekend, you could take in an opera that ran you through the Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts or a play that carried you around a cavernous exhibition space at St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Both were rewarding in vastly different ways.

Out of the Box Opera: “Acis and Galatea”

The opera was an abbreviated version of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.” Presented by Out of the Box Opera, adapted from a tale in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” it tells of a sea nymph named Galatea who falls in love with a mortal shepherd named Acis. Meanwhile Polyphemus, the cyclops son of the god Poseidon, is in love with her. The “Happy we” song of the lovers is followed by Polyphemus’ jealous rage, the murder of Acis, Galatea’s grief and her realization (thanks to a reminder from the chorus) that she has the divine power to make Acis immortal by turning him into a fountain.

Siena Forest, left, performing as Galatea on the A-Mill rooftop.
Photo by Dan Norman
Siena Forest, left, performing as Galatea on the A-Mill rooftop.
Out of the Box and its artistic director, David Lefkowich, are all about changing the experience of opera. So this was Handel presented in a new way. The first scene, Acis and Galatea’s engagement party, took place in the airy, artsy A-Mill lobby, with the singers weaving through the audience. The second, in which Polyphemus rants and fumes, was set in a high-ceilinged brick and stone room (an old storage bin?). Polyphemus played a mean electric guitar; a nod to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” brought laughs from the crowd.

The third scene, in which Acis meets his end, occurred in the A-Mill’s underground tunnels, reached by metal stairs. For the fourth, we went to the rooftop with its million-dollar views of the Minneapolis skyline and the Pillsbury’s Best Flour neon sign. As the wind whipped the flames in the metal firepit, Galatea sang of drying her tears.

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The singing was beautiful, with soprano Siena Forest, tenor David Walton and baritone Andrew Wilkowske as the main characters. Hearing a trained voice from five feet away is thrilling. All three performances sold out; each was limited to 60.

Overheard on one of the elevators that moved us from scene to scene: “This is fun. We’ve never been to an opera before.” That’s what Out of the Box wants: new, curious ears. Creators of the Diva Cage Match (operatic arias in a boxing ring) and what it calls “fusion events” — opera mixed with gospel, jazz, and soul, with more variations to come — OOTB shakes up our expectations of a night at the opera.

Mixed Blood Theatre: ‘Autonomy’

At RiverCentre, Mixed Blood Theatre accomplished a tremendous feat of theater, logistics and planning. In 70,000 square feet, it presented 72 performances of “Autonomy,” a new play with nine scenes and an audience on wheels. By the time the final scene (a short film) ran for the last time, 1,551 people had seen it.

Each scene took place in a different location with its own cast, sets and lighting. The sets included 40 classic cars, grouped by theme and chosen to complement the scenes. The main character, Gabby, was triple-cast so she could appear in three scenes. While you were watching one Gabby, the group behind you was watching another.

Each scene was precisely eight minutes long, with two minutes between scenes, so each performance lasted 90 minutes. (Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s artistic director, considers this the ideal length for a play.) The actors had two minutes to rewind before starting over – and over, and over, and over.

Randy Reyes, Isabella LaBlanc and Nathan Norman in a scene from “Autonomy.”
Photo by Dan Norman
Randy Reyes, Isabella LaBlanc and Nathan Barlow in a scene from “Autonomy.”
The audience traveled from scene to scene in a flotilla of golf carts, wearing earphones and carrying small radios tuned to specific frequencies. Several scenes took place at the same time. Without earphones, it was cacophony. With them, we could hear the actors just fine.

Groups of golf carts passed each other and sometimes crossed in front of each other, following glow-lit paths on the floor. With Eric Mayson’s original between-scenes music blasting through speakers and lights bouncing on the ceiling and walls, the transitions were like carnival rides. (You can see a video snippet on Artscape’s Facebook page.)

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Each scene was a small story well told by a cast that included James Denton, Rainbow Dickerson, Isabella LaBlanc, Kiki Laureano, Malachi Caballero, Taj Ruler, Harry Waters Jr., Nathan Barlow, Ansa Akyea, Randy Reyes (making his first appearance in a show since being let go by Theater Mu) and others. A short animated film featured the voices of Jeffrey Hatcher, Joy Dolo and Stephen Yoakam as Mr. Peanut the NUTmobile, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile and the Red Bull Mini. They were hilarious.

Ken LaZebnik’s play held together, given the challenges it faced and its broad subject matter, which spanned the coming of self-driving cars, climate change, immigration laws grown even more draconian, the perils that await us when the permafrost melts, corporate greed, aging, death, independence, the meaning of work, cloning, coding, hacking, and open-source software. It felt a little rah-rah, especially at the end, when Harry Waters spoke and sang a call to action. But a hint of irony kept him from going over the top. In fact, the whole “Autonomy” experience could easily have gone over the top, sacrificing theater for spectacle. But it didn’t. It stayed a play, smartly written and directed by a firm hand.

How will Reuler top “Autonomy”? When asked, he hinted at something even bigger.