Credit: Todd Rosenberg

When the general director steps out onto the stage before the curtain rises at Lyric Opera, it’s not a good sign. The audience for Wednesday’s matinee performance of La Traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 tearjerker extraordinaire, was not pleased to see Anthony Freud or to absorb his message: celebrated soprano Albina Shagimuratova—the star attraction in this production—was down with laryngitis and would not be appearing as Violetta, the Parisian prostitute with a heart of gold. Instead, understudy Emily Birsan, familiar to Lyric audiences from her years at the company’s Ryan Opera Center, would be stepping in. (Shagimuratova will be back for Sunday’s performance.)

A certain amount of air went out of the room at that point. No reflection on Birsan—she’s a lovely young soprano with a beautiful voice, if not yet quite jaded enough for this role. But without Shagimuratova, what Lyric delivered in this remounting of an underwhelming, occasionally misguided five-year-old production was routine. (Note to Lyric: bare fake boobs front and center two operas in a row is one appearance too many.)

Except that there’s nothing routine about the wonderful Verdi music. This is the Pretty Woman opera, the one that made Julia Roberts cry, and it’s a perfect date-night outing. Written when the composer was living outside of marriage with Giuseppina Strepponi, the woman who eventually became his wife, it’s an indictment of hypocritical mid-19th-century mores (the opera premiered in 1853) and a rigid class structure that could keep soul mates apart. Birsan paired well with tenor Giorgio Berrugi as her ardent young lover, Alfredo, and Zeljko Lucic was excellent as his stodgy father, Giorgio Germont, his rich baritone doing full justice to the second-act duet with Violetta that is the opera’s turning point. Among a solid cast, contralto Lauren Decker, a current Ryan Center member was a standout as Violetta’s maid, Annina. Michael Christie conducted the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus.   v