28 February 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA TRAVIATA (J. Echols, M. Chang, J.W. Kang, J. Wright, J. Lazarz, D. Hartmann, J. Malgieri, L. Fabio, K. Melges, J. Ittoop, J. Kato, B. Blakesley; North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giuseppe Verdi - LA TRAVIATA (North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataJacqueline Echols (Violetta Valéry), Mario Chang (Alfredo Germont), Joo Won Kang (Giorgio Germont), Jacob Wright (Gastone), Jennifer Lazarz (Flora Bervoix), Donald Hartmann (Barone Douphol), Jesse Malgieri (Marchese d’Obigny), Lora Fabio (Annina), Kurt Melges (Dottore Grenvil), Joseph Ittoop (Giuseppe), Jacob Kato (Commissionario), Brent Blakesley (Domestico); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Directed by Marc Astafan; Chorus prepared by Alfred E. Sturgis and Scott MacLeod; Lighting by Todd Hensley; North Carolina Opera – Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Friday, 27 February 2015]

When the acclaimed soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli took the stage of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, she faced a barrage of hostilities as only Italian opera can fabricate. A decade earlier, the young Giuseppe Verdi had conducted her in her Vienna début as Abigaille in his Nabucco, and only weeks before that fateful evening in March 1853 she had sung Elvira and Gulnara in La Fenice productions of Ernani and Il corsaro in addition to having enjoyed a considerable success as Donna Eleonora in the première of Carlo Ercole Bosoni’s La prigioniera. By the time that rehearsals for Verdi’s new opera, La traviata, began on 22 February 1853, the production was already a source of considerable angst for all involved with it. A setting of Alexandre Dumas fils’s literary homage to his paramour Marie Duplessis, La Dame aux camélias, La traviata was a rare contemporary subject, and Verdi was adamant that its first production should reflect its topical setting. His disappointment when it was made apparent that La Fenice would instead transplant the action in Seventeenth-Century Paris soured the composer to the production, and though the soprano was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the first performance of La traviata Verdi complained bitterly that Salvini-Donatelli was both too old and too full-figured to be convincing as the frail, consumptive Violetta. His efforts to replace her with another soprano were unsuccessful, so she bravely faced Verdi’s disapprobation and the audience’s scorn. There being little evidence of the ravages of disease in the soprano’s physique, she was heckled when her infirmity was referenced, but Verdi’s famous assessment of the opera’s première—‘La traviata ieri sera fiasco. La colpa è mia o dei cantanti? (‘La traviata yesterday was a fiasco. Is the blame mine or the singers’?’)—overstates the extent of the failure of the performance. In truth, contemporary accounts of the evening record that Verdi was called out to acknowledge the audience’s approval as early as the end of the Preludio and that, contrary to the contempt for her figure, Salvini-Donatelli’s singing was enthusiastically applauded, particularly her performance of ‘Sempre libera’ at the end of Act One. The Germonts père et fils—sung by Felice Varesi, Verdi’s first Macbeth and Rigoletto, and Lodovico Graziani—fared less honorably, but the success of the first night was sufficient to prompt nine additional performances of the opera in its inaugural season. Perhaps scarred but certainly not incapacitated by the reception of the first performance, Salvini-Donatelli sang Violetta in at least three further productions of La traviata between 1853 and her retirement from the stage. As the circumstances of the première of La traviata demonstrate, singers facing ridicule of aspects of their performances other than their voices is not a Twenty-First-Century phenomenon, but the history of Verdi’s bittersweet portrait of doomed love is also a validation of the potential of music to overcome such stupidity.

With direction by Marc Astafan and lighting by Todd Hensley, North Carolina Opera’s production of La traviata was a feast for appetites starved by Regietheater productions that prioritize ‘concepts’ ahead of Verdi’s intentions. The only concept that truly achieves the relevance for modern audiences so touted by opera companies is respect of composers’ and librettists’ requests. This need not be an excuse for dogged literalism, but productions that impose details extrapolated from sources other than operas’ scores and libretti risk gouging out chasms between performances and their audiences. A Traviata set on Pluto rather than in Paris can be effective, but one that substitutes some point of view other than Verdi’s essential focus on a dying woman, the man who loves her, and the father who stands between them is destined for failure, if not in immediate musical or dramatic terms then surely and insurmountably as a memorable realization of Verdi’s beloved opera. North Carolina Opera’s production placed Verdi’s, Francesco Maria Piave’s, and Dumas’s characters where they were meant to be. On loan from Nashville Opera, the sets and costumes evoked a Paris of legendary pulchritude but emotional isolation, the richly-hued costumes credibly and mostly flatteringly dressing the characters in clothes appropriate to their stations in Nineteenth-Century French society. Mr. Hensley’s lighting lent the production an initial warmth that transitioned meaningfully to the colder realities of Acts Two and Three: in the final scene, Violetta seemed not so much to be decaying as to be already poised between life and death. There was never any question of the fact that Violetta was the soul of the opera, and the production was especially insightful in its depiction of the extent to which Germont comes not just to pity but to truly feel affection for Violetta in the course of their scene in Act Two. Mr. Astafan guided the cast—including choristers—in imaginative blocking that capitalized on the potential of set pieces like the Brindisi in Act One but also reflected the almost claustrophobic intimacy of scenes in Acts Two and Three. Interactions among characters were strikingly organic: there was dramatic justification for every action and gesture except for the ‘crushing’ of Violetta by the guests at her party in Act One. This is the sort of conceit that is psychologically defensible but seems clumsy in practice. Tellingly, though, every individual on stage seemed comfortable not only with his or her own part in the drama but also with colleagues and the production. Refreshingly, it was Verdi’s Traviata rather than a Traviata in spite of Verdi.

North Carolina Opera’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers is one of the state's greatest cultural treasures. Whether conducting music by Mozart, Wagner, or Dvořák, Maestro Myers reliably exhibits preparedness, absolute understanding of the demands of the scores before him, and stylistic versatility that collectively enable him to approach music of divergent styles with far greater insight than the all-purpose stand-and-deliver sensibilities of many conductors permit. The core principles of conducting, the most vital of which is a resolute command of rhythm, are unchanging, but Così fan tutte is not Tristan und Isolde, which is not Rusalka. The greatest felicity of his pacing of La traviata was that he laid bare Verdi's Traviata: it was not the Traviata of some old recording, a well-learned imitation of a famous conductor's traversal of the score, or a quirky 'personal' reading of the opera. It is a sad indication of the willfulness of conductors to suggest that seeking everything that needs to be known about conducting a piece in the composer’s score amounts to an individual interpretation, but in the sense that Maestro Myers executed every marking in Verdi’s score with astonishing fidelity his Traviata was just that. He lingered over neither laughter nor tears except when Verdi advised that he should linger, and his management of orchestral textures and timpani figurations elevated Verdi’s orchestrations from accompaniments to participants. Under his baton, the orchestral musicians discarded formulaic playing and delivered their parts as though they were on stage among the characters. Despite instances of uncertain ensemble, the gossamer writing for the strings in the first bars of the Preludio and at the start of Act Three was hauntingly realized, and the poignant woodwind phrases in Act Two were played with liquid flow and perfect intonation. In the scene at Flora’s ball, spirits were ebullient until Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta halted the festivities with the power of a thunderbolt. Here as in Act One, the choristers sang well—markedly better, in truth, than their colleagues in far larger cities where opera is regularly performed, though it was unfortunate that a lone gentleman of the chorus made his first entrance a bar too early. Such things are part of the excitement of live performance, however. Though coordination was problematic, the offstage Coro di maschere in Act Three, ‘Largo al quadrupede,’ was vibrantly done (slightly too vibrantly in the case of the castanets and tambourine, in fact), heightening the contrast of the Parisians’ revelry with the dying Violetta’s quiet suffering. With both orchestra and chorus alert to his cumulative vision of the opera, Maestro Myers did not need to manufacture tragedy: rather, he allowed the audience to perceive how marvelously Verdi had already done so.

La traviata is an opera that is driven by its principals, but poor singing in secondary rôles can have a noticeably deleterious effect on a performance. Like many regional companies, North Carolina Opera casts many of the supporting parts in productions with local talent and young singers. This practice enlivened this performance of La traviata with wonderful vignettes enacted by fine singers. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lazarz impersonated a flirtatious but kind-hearted Flora, very much the life of her own party. Soprano Lora Fabio was a touching, sisterly Annina, her concern for Violetta clearly that of a much-loved friend. The obsidian-voiced Donald Hartmann’s Barone Douphol was a convincing roué without too much vaudevillian posturing, and his cavernous, virile tone made him a dangerous, somewhat sinister presence. The handsome Jesse Malgieri was a Marchese d'Obigny who demanded to be noticed: having commandeered attention, he voiced his lines with firm, easily-projected tone and exuded philandering charm. Kurt Melges and Jacob Wright sang well as Dottore Grenvil and Gastone, crafting intelligent portrayals despite the brevity of their lines. The aptly-named Joseph Ittoop was a capable, energetic Giuseppe, complemented by Brent Blakesley’s eager Domestico, and Jacob Kato was fine as the Commissionario but even better when, in the scene at Flora’s ball he reacted as a member of the chorus to Alfredo’s insulting of Violetta’s honor with visceral shock and disgust.

The sonorous voice and kinetic demeanor of South Korean baritone Joo Won Kang could find no better conduit than Germont’s music. Possessing a natural instrument of precisely the correct weight for the rôle, the voice secure throughout the range and the upper extension reaching top G without strain, Mr. Kang was a Germont of severity, moral authority, and, ultimately, great sympathy. As it should be, his Act Two scene with Violetta was the emotional climax of the performance. Phrasing 'Pura siccome un angelo' with the poetry of Lisitsian, the diction of Taddei, and the inviolable solidity of Tibbett, what this Germont demanded of Violetta could hardly be refused, but the blossoming uncertainty and compassion evinced in ‘Sì, piangi, o misera, piangi' were vividly conveyed by the baritone’s ardent but restrained singing. Mr. Kang’s account of ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancellò,’ one of the greatest arias for the baritone voice (and one of the most difficult to sing well), was exquisite, his breath control equal to the demands of the music. He was the rare Germont who made the excision of his cabaletta, 'No, non udrai rimproveri,' regrettable: the piece is dramatically inert, but any opportunity to hear this singer longer would have been most welcome. Confronting Alfredo after his imprudent assault on Violetta’s dignity at the ball, Mr. Kang’s Germont seemed almost too dismayed to get his words out in ‘Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende,’ but the musical line was sculpted with unyielding integrity. Though Germont’s part in Act Three is small, Mr. Kang’s aura was tremendous. When he sang that he had come at last to embrace the expiring Violetta as his daughter, his sincerity poured out over the footlights. Verdi baritones are some of the rarest creatures in opera. Hearing one on good form is a matchless pleasure. Hearing one in a city like Raleigh is unexpected, but Mr. Kang distinguished North Carolina Opera’s Traviata with a Germont as good as the best in the world, past and present.

Winner of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2014, young Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang brought to his portrayal of Alfredo both boyish appeal and emotional maturity that deepened as the opera progressed. From the start, it was apparent that Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was an impetuous young man in love with the notion of being in love: he was unusually believable as the awe-struck suitor besotted with Violetta but too shy to approach her. Goaded into serenading her, he seemed to gain strength merely from being in her presence. His launching of the Brindisi, ‘Libiamo, ne' lieti calici,’ at once revealed a fresh, focused lyric tenor with an attractively bright timbre. His ‘Un dì felice, eterea’ was the effusion of a fervent lover struggling to put his feelings into words, but the heady bel canto of his delivery of ‘Di quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito’ left no doubt that he had found his amorous footing. At the start of Act Two, Mr. Chang provided a rousing performance of Alfredo’s aria ‘De' miei bollenti spiriti,’ making easy going of the repeated ascents to top A♭ (though even his effective acting could not quite make sense of why the aria was delivered to a brandy snifter), and his animated account of his cabaletta, ‘O mio rimorso,’ was capped with a solid top C. In the brief interview with Violetta during Flora’s ball, the arrogance of Mr. Chang’s dismissal of Violetta’s warnings did not fully disguise the character’s injured pride and sorrow. He threw himself into his voicing of 'Ogni suo aver tal femmina,' Alfredo’s cruel mocking of Violetta before her peers, with abandon, but, having been chastised by his father, his regret and self-loathing in 'Ah sì! Che feci! Ne sento orrore!' were genuine. In Act Three, Mr. Chang reunited with Violetta with the same obvious upbeat optimism with which he first caressed her hand in Act One, and there was no doubting the uncomplicated faith of his sentiments in his urgent, luxuriously-phrased singing of 'Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo.' The directness of his utterance of ‘Oh, mio sospiro e palpito, diletto del cor mio!' as the reality of the hopelessness of Violetta’s condition overtook him was harrowing. As she unexpectedly rallied in the opera’s final moments, his smile returned, making the moment when Violetta suddenly died in his arms agonizing. Mr. Chang avoided forcing the voice in Alfredo’s most dramatic passages, but he projected handily throughout the performance. Aside from a few slightly pinched tones, Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was a total success.

Soprano Jacqueline Echols made a very favorable impression as Musetta in North Carolina Opera’s 2014 production of Puccini’s La bohème, but having witnessed her thoughtful performance in that opera was inadequate preparation for observing the dignity, eloquence, and heartbreaking tragedy that she achieved as Violetta in La traviata. At her first entrance, during the Renoir-like tableau vivant that occupied the stage during the Preludio, Ms. Echols established a cynical but alluringly sensitive characterization that persisted until Violetta took her final breath in Act Three. She began her part in the Brindisi, ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,’ with the glistening insouciance of a great star of silent film. Her singing of ‘Ah! fors'è lui che l'anima’ was brilliant, the evenness of the voice throughout the aria’s range unwavering. So forthright was her musing on Alfredo’s declaration of love that she seemed almost convinced to run away with him on the spot. Her laughter cascading through the theatre, Ms. Echols imparted the inevitability of Violetta’s forever-altered light-heartedness. The pair of top D♭s that frame the stanzas of ‘Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare di gioia in gioia’ stretched the soprano’s resources but were perfectly on pitch, and her singing of the celebrated cabaletta was expert, the coloratura negotiated with technical aplomb. Ms. Echols devoted to Violetta’s scene with Germont in Act Two singing of concentrated meaning, her delivery of 'Non sapete quale affetto' radiating untold depths of affection, and her singing of 'Dite alle giovine sì bella e pura' and 'Morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch'ei maledica' was often sublime. She rose to the great melodic arcs of 'Amami, Alfredo, quant'io t'amo! Addio!' and 'Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l'amor' with expansive tone that grew ever more gleaming as the lines ascended. In a sense, Ms. Echols’s Violetta, visibly transformed by her love for Alfredo from a beauty of figure to a beauty of soul, was already dead as the curtain came down on Act Two: the body lingered, but the spirit was extinguished. After an expressive reading of Germont’s letter in Act Three, the bitterness of Ms. Echols’s cry of 'E tardi' was cutting. The zenith of her performance was her singing of 'Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ in which she was granted both stanzas, her top As gorgeous even when nearly broken by emotion. Her show of joy in 'Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo' was for Alfredo’s benefit, her true attitude expressed in her moving 'Gran Dio! morir sì giovine, io che penato ho tanto!' Costumed like the princess of a grand realm in Acts One and Two, Ms. Echols was never more beautiful than in Act Three, when even in a dingy shift she shone. This epitomized her Violetta: exciting in the decorative music of Act One, she disclosed the full panoply of her gifts as a singing actress in the open-hearted music of Acts Two and Three.

That La traviata is frequently performed in every corner of the globe into which opera has spread is demonstrative of the impact that Verdi’s tale of love upended by duty and illness continues to have on the jaded mentalities of Twenty-First-Century audiences. Is there any greater proof of the viability and vitality of opera than the fact that grown men and women still shed tears for a ‘fallen woman’ who dies just when happiness seems within her grasp? North Carolina Opera gave Friday evening’s audience a Traviata that inspired tears by allowing Violetta to live, love, and die as Verdi intended. This Violetta, Alfredo, and Germont were not symbols or archetypes: there were people who loved, sung by people who loved them. For all its magnificent complexity, opera is, at its heart, that simple.