GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviata—Amy Cofield Williamson (Violetta Valéry), Dinyar Vania (Alfredo Germont), Levi Hernandez (Giorgio Germont), Carla Dirlikov Canales (Flora Bervoix), Jason Nichols (Gastone), Tatiana MacMartin (Annina), Jack Chandler (Il dottore Grenvil), Tadd Sipes (Il marchese d’Obigny), Robb Zahm (Il barone Douphol), Zach Helms (Giuseppe), Hayden Keefer (Un commissionario); Opera Roanoke Chorus; Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; Scott Williamson, conductor and Stage Director [Aurelien Eulert, Chorus Master; Jimmy Ray Ward, Set Designer; Pedro Szalay, Choreographer; Dante Olivia Smith, Lighting Designer; Audrey Hamilton-Shelton, Costume Director; Beckie Kravetz, Wigs and Makeup; Joey Neighbors, Technical Director; Opera Roanoke, Shaftman Performance Hall, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia; Sunday, 10 April 2016]
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but the fact that an opera’s popularity in many cases equates with critical dismissal and connoisseurs’ disdain defies easy logic. There are of course acknowledged masterpieces with particular requirements that put them beyond the grasps of many opera companies: musicians’ unions’ caps on hours worked make scores of extended durations like Berlioz’s Les Troyens impractical, scoring like Messiaen’s writing for ondes Martenot in Saint François d’Assise precludes performances by virtually all standard-repertory-centric companies, and the necessity of selling tickets relegates some of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’ finest scores to collecting dust on library shelves. Far removed from these extremes, the frequency with which Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata is performed in opera houses from Minsk to Montréal leaves no doubt about the place that the score occupies in audiences’ affections, but what can explain the continued critical contempt for an opera described by W. J. Henderson in The New York Times as long ago as 1892, on the occasion of a Metropolitan Opera revival featuring Adelina Patti as the consumptive protagonist, as ‘so hackneyed a work’? When La traviata premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, the opera’s plot could rightfully have been advertised as ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Marie Duplessis, the inspiration for the heroine of Verdi’s and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s sources, Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel and play La Dame aux camélias, had been dead for only six years. So fresh was the subject that the Venetian censors objected to the indiscretion of recreating Duplessis’s milieu upon the La Fenice stage, necessitating the relocation of Verdi’s and Piave’s Violetta Valéry to the Eighteenth Century, pre-Revolution courtesans having presumably been more palatable than contemporary ones. Objections of this sort no longer troubling efforts to bring La traviata to the stage and the appeal of Verdi’s music having long been acknowledged, perhaps the disconnect that exists between the opera and scholarly opinion that declares La traviata a work of sentimental excess results from critical ears never having heard the music performed with the dramatic sensitivity with which Verdi treated the opera’s subject. If this seems ridiculous considering the frequency with which La traviata is performed, so does the idea that the opera is anything other than a treasure of the repertory. Captivatingly staged in the Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Performance Hall, Opera Roanoke’s production of La traviata approached the opera not as a well-roasted chestnut sure to reap box office success but as an intimate, often wrenching exploration of the collisions of three lives. The power of Verdi’s music is undeniable, but, whereas audiences often shed tears for the dying Violetta in spite of the quality of what they see and hear, the Roanoke audience enjoyed a Traviata that broke the heart because it first made it swell with the joy of witnessing a performance that made Violetta’s life as engrossing as her death.
Many productions of La traviata seem to forget that it is an opera in which people are required to sing, cluttering the stage with pseudo-cinematic effects that distract both singers and audiences from the development of characters and the relationships among them. With all of its theatricality stripped away, La traviata is a disarmingly simple story: a parent’s good-intentioned but misguided intervention separates earnest lovers who are reunited only after it is too late. With the clean lines of Jimmy Ray Ward’s sets perceptively lit by Dante Olivia Smith’s lighting designs, Opera Roanoke’s production focused not on creating flashy technicolor tableaux but on placing Violetta and Germonts père and fils in settings in which their thoughts and feelings were as obvious to the audience as the words that they sang. Technical Director Joey Neighbors’s efforts ensured that the production sang as effectively as the voices. Costume Director Audrey Hamilton-Shelton put her Shakespearean credentials to good use with designs for La traviata that established finite settings but lent major and minor characters individuality. The betrousered Violetta of the critical exchanges with Giorgio Germont in Act Two was the epitome of fashionable country gentry, and the vibrant, primary-color attire for the opera’s public scenes—Act One and Flora’s ball in the second scene of Act Two—illustrated the social orders with which the protagonists are at odds. The authentically Spanish costumes for the gypsies and matadors ideally complemented the choreography for the dance episodes at Flora’s ball, brilliantly realized by Pedro Szalay, Artistic Director of Southwest Virginia Ballet. He and his troupe of fellow dancers—Sabrina Borneff, Olivia Bowers, Joey D’Alelio, Eric McIntyre, Maria Parnell, and Olivia Scott—moved with mesmerizing fluidity, but their pantomime doubling of Violetta and Alfredo, expressing in dance sentiments that are omnipresent but not enacted, was too much of a good thing: it was clever and often lovely to behold but unnecessarily lured the eyes away from the singers. Hamilton-Shelton’s and Szalay’s endeavors were enhanced by the wigs and makeup of renowned sculptor Beckie Kravetz, whose special understanding of facial contours and the physiological mechanism of singing yielded artful but unobtrusive creations. Placing the action in the entre-deux-guerres years, the production poignantly highlighted the timelessness of the opera’s central themes of love and loss.
Looking back to the era in which Dame Joan Sutherland’s Violetta was frequently guided by the conducting of her husband, Richard Bonynge, this legacy of Traviata ‘spousal privilege’ often engendered performances of well-coordinated musicality. Though the Australian Maestro is a thoughtful musician and a brilliant conductor of ballet, Opera Roanoke’s Artistic Director Scott Williamson is a more natural inhabitant of the opera house podium. Here presiding over his wife’s interpretation of Violetta, Williamson looked deeply into the score and extracted details that are often and easily overlooked. Aided by the generally praiseworthy playing of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, Williamson’s pacing of the performance was shaped by commitment to fidelity to Verdi’s score and discernment of how best to support the cast’s collective effort to make this an uncommonly satisfying Traviata. There were moments of unsteadiness from the Symphony’s strings and a few stray pitches from the brasses. Likewise, coordination between stage and pit was occasionally compromised, but the conductor quickly righted wrongs and maintained momentum that gave the drama necessary cumulative sweep. The performance’s strengths consistently outweighed its minor weaknesses, and Williamson’s conducting provided a top-quality canvas upon which the opera’s scenes were painted.
One of the performance’s most reliable strengths was the choral singing. Led by Chorus Master Aurelien Eulert, the Opera Roanoke Chorus made a robust showing in Act One despite the relative sparsity of their numbers, the ladies singing especially strongly and looking stunning as Flappers at Violetta’s party. In Flora’s ball in the second scene of Act Two, the ladies were again on grand form in the gypsies’ chorus, ‘Noi siamo zingarelle venute da lontano.’ The singing of the gentlemen of the chorus was less impressive than that of their female counterparts, but they delivered a rousingly masculine account of the matadors’ number, ‘Di Madride [bizarrely changed to Mexico in the production’s supertitles, though references to Biscay and Andalucía were retained] noi siam mattadori.’ The choristers made ‘Oh, infamia orribile tu commettesti!’ at Flora’s ball an imposing statement of shocked disgust at Alfredo’s treatment of Violetta. As the offstage Carnevale revelers in Act Three, the chorus sang ‘Largo al quadrupede sir della festa’ lustily: unfortunately, hearing their vigorous singing was made difficult by over-emphatic tambourine clanging from the pit. Throughout the performance, the choral singing added an alluring layer of color to Opera Roanoke’s portrait of La traviata.
Also harkening back to earlier times in operatic history typified by the Bing era at the Metropolitan Opera, when a regular company of gifted, prepared singers enriched performances with strong singing of secondary rôles, Opera Roanoke’s Traviata benefited from an ensemble of artists whose capable performances provided engaging vignettes that intelligently supported the principals and lent the drama added depth and nuance. Soprano Tatiana MacMartin was an Annina whose concern for Violetta was palpable and expressed with solid, attractive tone. Baritones Jack Chandler, Tadd Sipes, and Robb Zahm sang and acted well as Dottor Grenvil, Marchese d’Obigny, and Barone Douphol, and tenor Zach Helms and bass Hayden Keefer made much of little in their impersonations of Giuseppe and the Commissionario. Tenor Jason Nichols’s Gastone introduced Alfredo in Act One with a vivid statement of ‘In Alfredo Germont, o signora, ecco un altro che molto v’onora’ and was heard with pleasure in his every line thereafter. As portrayed by mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov Canales, Flora was a suitably glamorous hostess, a society maven with a good heart who was a true friend to Violetta even when dutifully playing her part in the social maelstrom that threatened to drown the suffering heroine in its morally ambiguous waters. Moreover, this Flora sang as attractively as she looked, Canales’s voice glistening throughout the range of Flora’s music.
Padre e figlia adottiva: Soprano Amy Cofield Williamson as Violetta (left) and baritone Levi Hernandez as Germont (right) in Opera Roanoke’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, April 2016 [Photo by Scott Williamson; used with permission]
Returning to Opera Roanoke after stealing the show as Dandini in the company’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola [reviewed here], baritone Levi Hernandez beguiled the Roanoke audience with a wholly different array of artistic abilities in La traviata. What his Giorgio Germont had in common with his Dandini was innate musicality that, in the context of Traviata, fed a drive to invite the audience into the most private recesses of the careworn father’s thoughts and motivations. Calling on Violetta in Act Two to entreat her to abandon Alfredo in order to restore respectability to the Germont name, Hernandez’s Giorgio was atypically compassionate, never bullying or browbeating his son’s delicate paramour. Hernandez sang ‘Pura siccome un angelo iddio mi die’ una figlia’ exquisitely, his deeply-felt manner reminiscent of Mario Zanasi’s singing in the well-known 1958 Covent Garden broadcast opposite Maria Callas’s Violetta and his burnished timbre and flickering vibrato recalling the voice of Giuseppe De Luca, the singer who incidentally created another of Hernandez’s best rôles, Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. His account of ‘Piangi, o misera, o piangi!’ was affectionate rather than merely cajoling, and this Giorgio seemed almost embarrassed by his own harshness when the despondent Violetta asked him to embrace her as he would his own daughter. Following the father’s futile attempts at comforting his tempestuous son, the aria ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancellò,’ one of Verdi’s most difficult baritone arias, was resiliently sung but was the least persuasive part of Hernandez’s performance. The aria’s top G♭s taxed the singer, tending to go marginally flat, and his phrasing was idiosyncratic, bringing to mind the unusual verbal cadences of Pavel Lisitsian’s famous recording of the aria in Russian. As is still common practice, Germont’s cabaletta ‘No, non udrai rimproveri’ was cut. Reacting to Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta at Flora’s ball, Hernandez articulated ‘Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende chi pur nell’ira la donna offende’ with such horror and disappointment that he seemed barely able to get the words out. Arriving at Violetta’s bedside in Act Three, Hernandez sang ‘La promessa adempio; a stringervi qual figlia vengo al seno, o generosa’ touchingly. Intriguingly, his guilt having plagued him, it was the elder Germont who in this performance seemed devastated by Violetta’s death. Hernandez was a Germont whose warm paternal instincts, expressed with singing of tremendous quality, made the character as tender a surrogate father for Violetta as he was a reproachful but ultimately caring progenitor for Alfredo.
In his portrayal of Alfredo, the younger Germont, tenor Dinyar Vania produced a stream of bronzed, hearty tone that destines him for heavier repertory. He cut a dashing figure upon his entrance in Act One and was fully credible as a youth impetuous enough to fall madly in love with a woman whom he has never formally met. His singing of the celebrated Brindisi, ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,’ was exciting, but his stentorian singing became slightly wearying, the voice ultimately impressing more than the interpretation. Vania’s ‘Un dì felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante’ was utterly secure and nobly phrased but earthbound, but generalized ardor materialized in his farewelling with Violetta. At the beginning of Act Two, Vania declaimed the recitative ‘Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!’ with dramatic force, and though there was more brute strength than poetry in his account of the aria ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ his vocalism was undeniably exhilarating. Regrettably, Alfredo’s cabaletta ‘Oh mio rimorso! Oh infamia!’ was omitted: the swagger of the cabaletta would surely have suited Vania better than the suavity of the aria. In the scene at Flora’s ball, this Alfredo responded to Violetta’s warnings with the ill temper of a spoiled child. Not surprisingly, though, Vania was at his best when brashly denouncing Violetta in ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina per amor mio sperdea,’ his voice ringing like the blows of a blacksmith’s hammer. Shamed by his father’s pained condemnation of his actions, Vania’s Alfredo withdrew into an unexpectedly inward reading of ‘Ah sì! Che feci! Ne sento orrore!’ Reunited with Violetta in Act Three, the tenor softened his approach for an aptly awestruck ‘O mia Violetta, oh gioia!’ and a ‘Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo’ that radiated optimism. Vania’s was an Alfredo who seemed to anticipate and accept Violetta’s death, his voicing of ‘Oh, mio sospiro e palpito’ blunted by preparation for the inevitable. Vania sang extremely well but with a voice more suited by nature for Alvaro in La forza del destino than for Alfredo.
It has often been observed that, at first glance, it seems that Violetta as she appears in each of the opera’s three acts was composed for a different type of voice: a lyric coloratura in Act One, a more dramatic voice in Act Two, and a straightforward lyric soprano in Act Three. Certainly, the rôle has been memorably sung by a wider array of voices than any of Verdi’s other heroines, ranging from lyrics like Caballé and Freni to larger voices like those of Sutherland and the Falcon-esque Callas. Opera Roanoke’s Violetta, soprano Amy Cofield Williamson, was a crossroads at which lyricism and drama intersected. Enunciating ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’ with spirit, Williamson delivered her part in the Brindisi, ‘Tra voi saprò dividere il tempo mio giocondo’ with gusto. In Violetta’s scene with Alfredo, the soprano delivered ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi’ with intensity, and her voicing of ‘È strano! è strano!’ was probing. Williamson made the aria ‘Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima’ a profoundly personal reverie, her calm, confident vocalism driven by the text, facilitated by her expert diction. Her trill in the aria’s cadenza was superb. The contrast of the utterance of ‘Follie! Delirio vano è questo!’ that followed could hardly have been greater, Violetta’s gaiety returning as the vocal line climbed higher. Williamson’s performance of the cabaletta ‘Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioia in gioia’ was all the more enjoyable for being unforced. The scale of her singing matched that of her account of the preceding aria, her top Cs bright and certain of intonation and the long-held interpolated E♭ in alt slightly effortful but decidedly worth the risk. In the magnificent Act Two scene with Germont, the soprano’s interjection of ‘Ah! comprendo’ after learning of Alfredo’s sister was piercing, this Violetta already sensing what would be asked of her. The quiet fortitude of Williamson’s voicing of ‘Non sapete quale affetto’ led to a heartbreaking performance of ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura,’ the voice reduced to a thread of concentrated, arrestingly beautiful sound. Then, the emotional landslide of ‘Morrò! La mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica’ swept over Violetta and Germont with unstinting force, propelled by Williamson’s emotive singing. The first of Violetta’s great arching melodies, ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo,’ drew from the soprano an outpouring of opulent tone. At Flora’s ball, Williamson’s Violetta intoned ‘Invitato a qui seguirmi’ with disquieting foreboding, and her understated reaction to Alfredo’s cruelty was indicative of the sincerity of her love for him. With her ravishing singing of the second of Violetta’s exalted melodies, ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore,’ Williamson proved herself to be markedly superior to many sopranos who sing the rôle today. Even in the context of Flora’s ball, this was an unmistakably introverted passage, a statement meant for Alfredo alone, and the hushed tranquility of Williamson’s singing was far more moving than many sopranos’ near-hysterical caterwauling. Act Three of La traviata is a formidable test for any soprano, and Williamson further distinguished herself with singing of prodigious but never exaggerated expressivity. ‘Addio del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ reduced to one verse, was here a gravely private reflection, Williamson’s top A a tone of epic beauty. In the ecstatic duet with Alfredo, ‘Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo,’ this Violetta seemed to believe for a moment that escape from her tragic circumstances was possible before the reality of her condition asserted itself in an expansively-phrased ‘Ah! Gran Dio! Morir sì giovine, io che penato ho tanto!’ The simplicity with which Williamson sang both ‘Prendi, quest’è l’immagine de’ miei passati giorni’ and ‘Se una pudica vergine, degli anni suoi sul fiore’ was affecting, and the skill of her acting made the moment of Violetta’s death agonizing, her body going limp in Alfredo’s arms just as it seemed that she was poised to soar back to health. As a vocalist and an actress, Williamson provided the Roanoke audience with a warm, womanly Violetta that absorbingly honored Duplessis, Dumas, Piave, and, above all, Verdi.
In many productions, La traviata seems like a puzzle with pieces that do not fit. One is either asked to accept stagings that conform with directors’ concepts of the opera rather than Verdi’s or compelled to endure singing that falls short of the preeminence that the score merits. Opera Roanoke’s production of La traviata assembled the puzzle with both elegance and eloquence, letting the opera speak—no, sing—for itself. What La traviata needs are not multi-million-dollar productions and casts of singers with names more illustrious than their talents that transform the opera into a circus act with vocal obbligato. La traviata needs a Violetta whose heart, soul, and throat embrace Verdi’s music, an Alfredo who loves her, and a Germont whose moral foundation is shaken by his encounter with a ‘fallen woman’ with a spirit purer than those of the most lauded paragons of virtue. With these crucial characterizations at its core, Opera Roanoke’s Traviata was an invigorating glimpse of the sterling emotional potential of opera, now so badly tarnished.