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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

falls flat."

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

Verdi’s opera.

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

contemporary issues."

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

La Traviata, Boheme Opera, War Memorial Theater,

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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