24 October 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — LA TRAVIATA (Y. Lysenko, O. Van Gay II, R. Overman, K. Schwecke, D. Romano, D. Maize, S. MacLeod, K. Spooner, D. Hartmann; Piedmont Opera, 21 October 2022)

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataYulia Lysenko (Violetta Valéry), Orson Van Gay II (Alfredo Germont), Robert Overman (Giorgio Germont). Kristin Schwecke (Flora Bervoix), Danielle Romano (Annina), David Maize (Gastone, Visconte di Letorières), Scott MacLeod (Il barone Douphol), Kevin Spooner (Il marchese d’Obigny), Donald Hartmann (Il dottor Grenvil), Jackson Ray (Giuseppe), Lawrence Hall (Un commissionario); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, stage director; Howard Jones, set designer; Gary Taylor, choreographer; Norman Coates, lighting designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 21 October 2022]

The world première of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, failed to equal the success of the house’s inaugural presentation of Rigoletto two years earlier. The rapturous reception given to Rigoletto by the Venetian public prompted La Fenice’s management to commission Verdi to write an additional opera for the house, but derision of what the first-night audience regarded as infelicitous casting deprived La traviata of a triumphant introduction befitting the opera’s popularity with subsequent generations of opera lovers. Like other operas that survived inauspicious premières to later garner acclaim and affection, La traviata demonstrated its considerable musical and theatrical virtues to observers willing to ignore visual distractions and listen without prejudices, its memorable melodies and poignant tragedy soon applauded in virtually every opera house in the world.

Correspondence between Verdi and the librettist for his new opera for La Fenice, Francesco Maria Piave, with whom he had already collaborated on scores including Ernani, Macbeth, and Rigoletto, documents the composer’s quest to choose a subject that defied the prevailing conventions of the day. Though wary of the manner of censorial meddling that marred his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, Verdi was determined to find a contemporary subject rather than the typical operatic fare of mythological figures, tales of Antiquity, and Medieval pageantry. Scholars debate whether Verdi’s first exposure to Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux camélias was seeing a performance of its stage incarnation in Paris in February 1852 or reading the novel after its publication in 1848, but the story of a denizen of Parisian demimonde society sacrificing her happiness in order to preserve the honor of her paramour’s family indisputably captivated him. Misgivings about potential censorship did not deter Verdi and Piave from transforming Dumas’s dame aux camélias, Marguerite Gautier, into Violetta Valéry, the heroine of their La traviata. The contemporary setting of Verdi’s opera fell victim to official objection, but countless productions in the years since its première in 1853 have exhibited that the effectiveness of the opera’s tragedy does not depend upon visual stimuli. Whether she wears a hoop skirt, a bustle, or jeans, a Violetta who trusts Verdi’s music to guide her performance will earn tears and cheers.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Sull’orlo della morte: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

That Verdi and Piave achieved their goal of making the tragedy of their setting of the Dumas drama universally affecting was apparent in every moment of Piedmont Opera’s staging of La traviata. Perpetuating an association with the company that proved splendidly fruitful in Piedmont Opera’s 2019 and 2021 productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, Steven LaCosse directed this staging of La traviata with imagination fueled by unmistakable affection for the score. Unlike some of his directorial counterparts, whose work controverts even the most generalized animas of composers’ and librettists’ intentions, LaCosse tasks himself with telling operas’ stories in his own ways rather than telling his own stories using the operas with which he is entrusted.

Aided in this production by elegant set designs by Howard Jones, the effectiveness of which was diminished only by the too-obvious symbolism of an oversized frame that held painted tableaux in the first and second act being empty in Act Three, Norman Coates’s atmospheric but often excessively dark lighting, opulent costumes borrowed from Sarasota Opera and coordinated in Winston-Salem by Ann M. Bruskkiewitz, and typically attractive but unobtrusive wigs and makeup by Martha Ruskai, LaCosse returned La traviata to the Nineteenth-Century setting that Verdi wanted but was denied by the Venetian censor. Gary Taylor’s choreography raucously brought the frenetic energy of Spanish fiestas to Flora’s party in Act Two. Fondly traditional but never stodgy, this Traviata was both familiar and fresh.

Alongside LaCosse’s insightful direction, the conducting of Music Director James Allbritten reliably integrates the constituent elements of Piedmont Opers productions into cohesive theatrical experiences. In recent seasons, Allbritten has demonstrated his mastery of a broad array of repertoire, and his conducting of this performance of La traviata was distinguished by particularly eloquent handling of a beloved score. Espousing neither the view that La traviata is too popular to require study and reevaluation nor the assertion that a conductor must approach Verdi’s music radically and idiosyncratically in order to manifest individuality, Allbritten paced the score with keen focus on permitting the opera’s crucial relationships to develop and evolve organically via the music. Unafraid of grand dramatic gestures and dulcet lyricism, he expertly accentuated the contrasts between outward appearances and inner feelings, a vital component of La traviata and of Verdi’s operas in general.

The wisdom of Allbritten’s management of this Traviata’s musical forces was abundantly apparent in the singing of the Piedmont Opera Chorus and the playing of the Winston-Salem Symphony. As partygoers, jubilant in Act One and at first exultant and then shocked in Act Two, and offstage revelers in Act Three, the choristers sang excitingly, providing a sonorous musical backdrop before which the opera’s tragedy transpired. The Symphony musicians rendered their parts with gusto that amplified the aural impact of Allbritten’s reading of the score. Instances of intonational insecurity were few, and Allbritten’s leadership facilitated a high level of musical excellence that was rapidly restored when precision of ensemble between stage and pit disintegrated. Without sacrificing intricate details of Verdi’s late bel canto language, the opera’s drama was recounted not in a series of interconnected sentences but in broadly-conceived paragraphs, the conductor imparting from the first bars of the work’s plaintive Preludio—sadly marred by a glaring wrong entry—an abiding sense of the frsgility of love and life.

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Donne al ballo: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

La traviata is unique in the Verdi canon in placing the drama solely upon the backs of the opera’s three central characters. The figures who inhabit the periphery of the story serve clearly-defined functions within the plot but have few opportunities for characterization. Piedmont Opera nonetheless assembled a team of talented singing actors for supporting rôles in this Traviata. Appearing only in Act Two, Violetta’s servant Giuseppe and the Commissionario who delivers Violetta’s fateful letter to Alfredo were handsomely sung by tenor Jackson Ray and baritone Lawrence Hall. Similarly, baritone Kevin Spooner was an uncommonly noteworthy Marchese d’Obigny, and tenor David Maize, lustrously singing Verdi’s lines for Gastone, the Visconte di Letorières, introduced Alfredo to Violetta in Act One with an earnest ‘In Alfredo Germont, o signora.’ Baritone Scott MacLeod was aptly haughty as Barone Douphol, delivering the libidinous aristocrat’s admonitions to Violetta and threatening Alfredo with firm-toned vehemence.

Aside from the soprano and tenor protagonists, only Dottore Grenvil appears in each of La traviata’s three acts. A participant in Act One’s festivities who witnesses Alfredo’s cruel denunciation of Violetta in Act Two and attends to her as she nears death in Act Three, he received genuine vocal and theatrical presence in this production from bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. Singing vividly in Acts One and Two, in which his imposing tones lent the ensembles a firm foundation, he voiced ’La tisi non le accorda che poche ore’ in Act Three with sonorous gravitas, shattering the illusion of Violetta’s desperate optimism.

Serving Violetta in her rural retreat with Alfredo in Act Two and steadfastly remaining at her mistress’s side in Act Three, Annina was depicted as a concerned, compassionate woman by mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano, her urgent singing often conveying the character’s concern and anguish. Soprano Kristin Schwecke’s Flora exuded glamour, both in Violetta’s salon in Act One and at her own rollicking soirée in Act Two, during which she voiced ‘Avrem lieta di maschere la notte’ compellingly, heightening the air of foreboding that detonates in Violetta’s confrontation with Alfredo. Romano and Schwecke sang appealingly, Annina’s humility contrasting tellingly with Flora’s worldliness.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Il padre severo: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograp by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Arturo Toscanini famously counseled the young Robert Merrill that his understanding of Act Two of La traviata would be transformed by fatherhood, intimating that, in a wholly successful portrayal of the elder Germont, vocalism of even the finest caliber must be allied with paternal warmth. The consistent brilliance of baritone Robert Overman’s 2015 depiction of Rigoletto for Piedmont Opera was only fitfully replicated in his interpretation of Giorgio Germont. At his first entrance in Act Two, it was immediately discernible that Overman’s timbre remains well suited to Verdi repertoire, but the wide compass of Germont’s music exposed the voice’s lack of steadiness. In the extended duet with Violetta, he sang ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ nobly, touchingly invoking the father’s love for his daughter, and he phrased ‘Un dì, quando le veneri il tempo avrà fugate’ with true dignity. Overman voiced ‘Piangi, piangi, piangi, o misera’ gracefully, comforting rather than hectoring as Germont demanded that Violetta abandon Alfredo.

‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’ is one of Verdi’s finest arias for baritone, and Overman’s account of it was admirable in skilled management of the line and even projection throughout the range, but the tremulous tone disappointed. As in many productions, Germont’s cabaletta was suppressed, leaving him to end Act Two by reacting with exasperation to Alfredo’s hasty pursuit of Violetta. Overhearing his son’s merciless outburst at Flora’s fête, this Germont declaimed ‘Di sprezzo degno sè stesso rende’ fervently, his shame as great as Violetta’s. In Overman’s performance, Germont’s arrival at the dying Violetta’s flat in Act Three was understated, his ‘Di più non lacerarmi’ enunciated subtly as he withdrew into the shadows, making way for Alfredo to share Violetta’s final moments. The many virtues of Overman’s portrayal of Germont ultimately overcame the voice’s diminished security, his limning of the father’s journey from cold severity to remorse and reconciliation intensifying the opera’s pathos.

IN REVIEW: tenor ORSON VAN GAY II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Solo, con il suo rimorso: tenor Orson Van Gay II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Bringing to his performance of Verdi’s music for the lovelorn Alfredo a flickering vibrato reminiscent of Miguel Fleta, tenor Orson Van Gay II sang and acted ardently, his body language in the opening scene of Act One communicating the character’s devotion to Violetta before his first word was sung. Launhcing the celebrated Brindisi, Van Gay voiced ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ ebulliently. His traversal of ‘Un dì, felice, eterea’ was properly amorous, but the ascent to ‘croce e delizia’ disclosed a tendency to forsake the correct vowels in the interest of engendering more congenial placement of tones above the passaggio. This was less apparent in Van Gay’s singing from offstage during Violetta’s cabaletta and in his impassioned articulation of ‘Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!’ at the start of Act Two.

In Van Gay’s performance, Alfredo’s aria ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ was a potent statement of personal conviction, the zealous lover proclaiming his total immersion in life with Violetta. Like his father, Germont fils lost his cabaletta, and the absence of ‘O mio rimorso! o infamia!’ made the shortened scene seem disconcertingly perfunctory. The scenes with Violetta and Germont that followed inspired the tenor to his best singing of the evening, the voice sounding focused and free. Bursting into Flora’s party, this Alfredo sparred insouciantly with Barone Douphol and heartlessly dismissed Violetta’s warnings. Van Gay uttered ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina’ ruthlessly but convincingly evinced Alfredo’s horror and heartbreak when Germont castigated his behavior. Alfredo’s belated return to Violetta in Act Three was strangely pedestrian, Van Gay’s voicing of ‘Parigi, o cara’ sensitive but phlegmatic, as though Alfredo was aware that he had no more time with Violetta. He sang ‘O mio sospiro e palpito’ affectingly, but his demeanor betrayed cognizance of the inevitability of Violetta’s death. Van Gay was a romantic Alfredo whose heart-on-the-sleeve emoting in the opera’s first two acts intermittently robbed the voice of evenness, but the vitality of his work was gratifyingly unflappable.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Una lettera d’un padre: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

When asked in an interview some years ago to share his thoughts on the dramatic structure of La traviata, a prominent tenor who frequently sang Alfredo replied, ‘It’s about Violetta.’ Whether on stage alone or in the company of the full ensemble, soprano Yulia Lysenko was indisputably the soul of Piedmont Opera’s Traviata. Her opening ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’ in Act One disclosed vocal allure and technical poise, recalling Victoria de los Ángeles’s Violetta despite diction that faltered in some passages. Joining Van Gay in the Brindisi, she voiced ‘Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere’ effervescently, and her enunciation of ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi’ allied playfulness with yearning. Lysenko infused ‘È strano!’ with curiosity, but her mesmerizing traversal of ‘Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima,’ compromised only by a slight crack on the second top A, radiated burgeoning desire. The reverie was abruptly ended by her sparkling ‘Follie! follie! delirio vano è questo,’ bemused elation lightening the voice. ‘Sempre libera’ was splendidly sung, the top Cs and D♭s comfortably in the voice and the fiorature dispatched intrepidly.

Lysenko was a rare Violetta whose singing in all three of the opera’s acts was accomplished, but she rose to exalted heights of expressivity and musicality in Act Two. Having lovingly hidden the true source of her finances from Alfredo, Lysenko’s Violetta matured further in the momentous discourse with Germont. The avidity of her ‘Non sapete quale affetto vivo’ was as galvanizing as the simplicity of her ‘Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura’ was moving, and the resolve with which she voiced ‘Morrò! morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica’ was wrenching. Keeping her promise to leave Alfredo, she entreated ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’ with overwhelming emotional power.

The depth of Violetta’s pain was audible in Lysenko’s statement of ‘Che fia? morir mi sento!’ at Flora’s ball, and fear trembled in her ‘Invitato a qui seguirmi’ when she encountered Alfredo. Silently enduring the humiliation of his public recriminations, her sorrow cascaded in a devastatingly beautiful ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore.’ Lysenko eschewed overwrought histrionics in the spoken recitation of Germont’s letter in Act Three, and her cry of ‘È tardi!’ was chilling. The sublime resignation and soaring top As of Lysenko’s singing of ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’ rendered the excision of its second half lamentable. Her hope rekindled by Alfredo’s return, ‘Parigi, o caro’ offered a crushing glimpse of renewed happiness, but the finality of ‘Ah! gran Dio! morir sì giovine’ codified the impending tragedy. Lysenko’s crisp trills as Violetta sang of feeling her will to live returning were a final, fleeting vocal manifestation of physical health. Exhausted by the effort, Lysenko’s Violetta expired as she lived, collapsing unsupported, seen by those around her but left to fight her own battle. Lysenko did not fight without aid in Piedmont Opera’s La traviata, for which the company enlisted a battalion of gifted artists, but hers was the victory that ensured this Traviata’s conquest.