Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the
April 25, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Returning to the Roots of `La Traviata’
For director James Marvel conventional wisdom carries
no clout. Probing, he makes his own judgments. "`La
he says, "is the big love story. I don’t understand why people
think `Romeo and Juliet is a great love story; it’s about two kids
who don’t understand the world." For him Alfredo and Violetta,
the lovers in Verdi’s opera, are the epitome of romantic attachment
"I’ve seen about seven productions of `La Traviata’ throughout
world in the last year, and one thing remarkably absent was the love.
`La Traviata’ is a big love story. Otherwise all the gorgeous music
Boheme Opera presents his version of Verdi’s "La Traviata"
at the Trenton War Memorial on Friday, April 27, at 8 p.m., and
April 29, at 3 p.m. The production features Helen Todd as Violetta,
Benjamin Warschawski as Alfredo, and David Arnold as Germont,
father. Joseph Pucciatti is music director.
Rather than drawing on existing interpretations of this popular opera,
Marvel turns to the life of Marie Duplessis, the real woman on whom
the character of Violetta is based, to shape his conception of the
piece. Duplessis, a renowned courtesan who had liasons with writer
Alexandre Dumas the younger and composer Franz Liszt, died of
at age 23 and devoted her last years to making her heart pure. Dumas’
novel "La Dame aux Camelias," a fictionalized account of his
affair with Duplessis, was the basis of both his subsequent play and
Marvel was struck by Duplessis’ growing spirituality. "At her
death," he says, "she owned only a bed and a priedieu, the
kneeler she used for her religious devotions. I see Violetta as having
made a strong religious conversion in Act Two. At the end she sings
the line, `My body is in pain, but my soul is in peace.’"
"La Traviata" opens at a party given by Violetta in her Paris
home. Her persistent cough does not prevent her from enjoying the
high living of her social set. She falls in love with Alfredo Germont,
a guest at the party. Withdrawing from her circle in Paris, Violetta
moves to the country with Alfredo. Alfredo’s father, Giorgio visits
Violetta and convinces her to leave Alfredo. He fears that because
of Violetta’s lack of respectability, her liaison with Alfredo could
jeopardize the impending marriage of Alfredo’s sister. Violetta
Alfredo and returns to her old life in Paris, leading Alfredo to
that she no longer loves him. Dying of tuberculosis, Violetta receives
a letter from Giorgio, who has told his son Alfredo about her
Alfredo reaches Violetta’s bedside just a moment (and one searing
duet) before she dies.
Marvel finesses a possible feminist portrayal of Violetta. He
to her no internal conflict about leaving Alfred. "For her to
abandon Alfredo," he says, "is an act of selflessness. It’s
a matter of religious redemption. She’s a martyr."
Marvel’s "Traviata" takes place in the Paris of about 1850,
matching the first performance of Verdi’s opera. "I intensely
disagree with Peter Sellars about making opera contemporary,"
he says, speaking of Sellars’ controversial project to update three
key Mozart operas to contemporary New York City. "Opera very much
should be set in the time when it was written, even if it refers to
Marvel intensifies the mood of 1853, when "La Traviata" was
written, by including choreographed gypsy and matador sequences that
are often cut from the beginning of Act Three. "I like to include
those dance scenes the same way Shakespeare includes comic characters
for comic relief," Marvel says. "The dancing also shows the
decadent, carefree life in Paris at the time. Paris was called `the
brothel of Europe’ then." He quotes an epigrammatic contemporary
characterization of the city. "Paris is the city of joy and gaiety
where four-fifths of the inhabitants die of grief," and goes on
to track down the attribution to Nicolas Chamfort in one of the
volumes that he keeps at home.
Our conversation takes place on Marvel’s cell phone as he travels
from New York to his home in Princeton, and is a tribute to his
to focus in the midst of distraction. Phone to his ear, he ignores
the conductor’s announcement of stations en route, negotiates the
change at Princeton Junction to the Dinky, finds a taxi, and persuades
the driver to reduce the charge from $10 to $7, all in the interstices
of the interview. Once at home, he reaches for the book with the
is the city of joy and gaiety" quote. He knows just where to find
Now 26, Marvel was born in New Orleans. At the time
his father, an actor, was an English professor at Tulane University;
he now teaches oral and written communication in Tulane’s business
school. His mother, a pianist, is a legal secretary. They met in
when they both worked at Opinion Research Corporation (ORC). "My
Mom’s a fourth generation Princetonian," Marvel says, "So
I guess I’m fifth generation." His mother’s maiden name is
his grandmother’s maiden name is Cooper. Open to dramatic
Marvel says, "I have no siblings that I know of."
"Growing up in New Orleans was wonderful," Marvel says.
a certain liberalness and ease which I always miss. There’s a carefree
attitude about life. I’m not much for Mardi Gras, I’m not a big
or drinker, but there’s something about the mystique of the city.
New Orleans is very Catholic and very Voodoo. It’s different from
the rest of the country. But the city became too small for me because
of its lack of intellectual and cultural life. It has a good opera
company, but high culture is missing. New Orleans can’t support a
theater company. The orchestra has been in and out of a financial
mess since I was a kid. There’s no ballet company. It’s a city that’s
about food and jazz, secondary cultural things."
Sarah Lawrence College, where he earned a degree in world literature
in 1997, was a cultural shock for Marvel. "I had gone to an
Catholic school in New Orleans," he says, "and there was a
low level of education in the South. Sarah Lawrence was then three
quarters female and was in the Northeast. It was a challenge. There
were extreme leftist ideas I had never even encountered in New
Marvel spent his junior year at Oxford’s Wadham College. The following
summer he studied at Charles University in Prague. "I met a lot
of Czech writers and artists, including Vaclav Havel," he says.
"It sparked my interest in Eastern Europe. Since then I’ve been
in Budapest, in Bratislava twice, and in Lodz, Poland."
The East European connection persisted as Marvel earned a master’s
degree last year from the International Actor Training Academy, a
conservatory at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which had
a strong Romanian presence during his work there.
Marvel is somewhat surprised at the theatrical direction of his
"I come from an academic background," he says, "and I
never thought of going into theater. I considered a Ph.D. in
He has received a fistful of grants for scholarly work about theater,
and has published poetry, short stories, and reviews. His research
is on drama styles and training methods in different countries.
"To understand yourself better as an American artist you need
to know what makes you different from other countries," he
"Most Americans revere the theater in Europe for its high
level, but Europeans admire American naturalism. The Europeans are
trying to move away from a more classical approach to training, and
get closer to the American form of realism that you see more in movies
than in theater."
In Marvel’s estimation, Europeans have an advantage over Americans
when it comes to theatrical performance.
"In Europe," he says, "most productions are new; in the
United States they’re rented. In Europe theater is funded by the
while in the United States, which has less government support, there
are real budgetary constraints. It doesn’t lessen the aesthetic in
the United States, but there’s a greater level of freedom in
Ultimately, Marvel thinks that Europe is his place.
For Marvel opera is theater, with all its vitality and opportunities.
He opposes the idea that opera is a museum species. "One of the
main things I think as an opera director," he says, " is that
we’re not curators of an art form. Opera can’t just be a piece of
art hanging on a wall. It has to live, breathe, and move forward.
I disagree with Peter Brook, who wrote in `The Empty Space’ that opera
is a dead art form. Because I’m young I can appeal to younger
and show them what’s exciting about opera. It has a lot to do with
our life as we live it today."
Marvel’s model as a director is Darko Tresnjak, who has devised
compelling productions for Boheme Opera in the past, and with whom
Marvel worked at the Virginia Opera (U.S. 1 October 21, 1998) "I
consider Darko Tresnjak my mentor and friend," he says. "His
theater is storytelling, with a high level of artistry."
Marvel has stepped outside the boundaries of a single language in
his quest for theatrical effectiveness. With a cast consisting partly
of English speakers, and partly of Slovak speakers, he has directed
productions of "Romeo and Juliet" and of Sartre’s "The
Flies" for the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in
ITI has hubs throughout the world, and a presence in New York. "In
multi-lingual productions the actors speak their native
he says. "I want to create international performances of classic
literature, with each actor performing in the country’s traditional
style. Surprisingly, different countries have remarkably similar
Europe, where different languages impinge closely on each other, is
a likely continent for this sort of theater. With a plethora of
and dialects, Marvel should be able on the other side of the Atlantic
to carry his taste for the unconventional beyond interpretation and
correct the miscommunication of the tower of Babel.
— Elaine Strauss
Trenton, 609-581-7200. James Marvel directs and Joseph Pucciatti is
music director. Sung in Italian with English supertitles. Talk one
hour before curtain time. $20 to $50. Friday, April 27, 8 p.m.
and Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m.
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