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Scaling opera’s peak
OperaDelaware and Opera Baltimore present Verdi’s La traviata
OperaDelaware continues its back-to-the-stage season with a beautifully mounted production of La traviata presented in collaboration with Opera Baltimore. It’s one of the most romantic and tragic works in a genre noted for high romance and great tragedy.
Originally titled Violetta (its heroine), the frequently performed La traviata (“The fallen”) is based on La Dame aux camélias, an 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas (fils) adapted from his novel. When composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) read and saw the work, he was inspired to compose one of the most enduringly popular works in the operatic canon—and one of his masterpieces.
The opera skillfully layers and contrasts the brittle elegance of upper-crust Parisian society with moments of tender intimacy, mirroring the up-and-down trajectory of its heroine. Violetta (Lindsay Ohse) is a celebrated beauty and renowned courtesan who longs for freedom, embracing the lovers and intricacies of that arch social world. But secretly, Violetta (who suffers from consumption) has longed all her life for true love and companionship. When young, romantic Alfredo Germont (Matthew Vickers) steps forward among her troupe of admirers and declares his adoration, Violetta is deeply moved, and changed, by his sincerity.
Leaving behind le beau monde, the pair move to the countryside, embarking on a happy (though short-lived) bucolic life. Soon Alfredo’s father Giorgio (Benjamin Taylor) invades their domesticity, confronting Violetta with a demand to break off a relationship bringing shame to his family. Violetta, in her love for Alfredo, reluctantly agrees and returns to Paris, resuming her liaison with Baron Douphol (Ben Lowe) and enraging Alfredo, who confronts the Baron at yet another glittering party. But Violetta longs to return to Alfredo, and as the opera ends, they are finally reunited as she dies in his arms.
The diva’s duty
Any production of this opera rises (or not) on the strength of its diva. She must enchant both her suitors and the audience and convey a staggering range of emotions via Verdi’s challenging music. In this pivotal role, Ohse carries the day on all counts. From her glittering vocal fireworks to her awakening introspection and ultimate loss, she is an always believable heroine and a pleasure to watch and hear, whether dazzling or heartbreaking.
Vocally Ohse was well matched with Vickers, who as Alfredo had some luscious moments—including the famous Act I aria “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici (Let us drink with abandon)”—all delivered with flair and sincerity. The weak link in this tripartite chain was Taylor as Giorgio, the father whose overweening care for familial reputation rends the lovers. While this baritone’s voice might be well-suited to the role, his rudimentary and wooden characterization greatly slowed the production’s forward motion and brought his Act II showdown with Violetta to a dramatic standstill.
The great star of the work
The chorus (skillfully prepared by Aurelien Eulert) and the supporting roles were all first-rate. But the other great star of this work is, of course, Verdi’s score, and the excellent OperaDelaware orchestra, which was conducted by Domenico Boyagian with fluidity and sensitivity. He gave ample focus to Verdi’s masterful writing while keeping the score perfectly paced and attuned to the production and the singers. In the opera’s many beautiful musical moments—plaintive clarinet passages, foreboding timpani, orchestral sound painting as Violetta struggles to leave Alfredo, and many more—Boyagian allowed the orchestra to breathe and shine.
Scaling the pinnacle
The production’s staging was equally skilled. In her program notes, stage director Kaley Karis Smith writes that as a woman, Violetta is “denied the agency to live her life as she would like in Parisian society,” so she must make “courageous, selfless, and passionate” choices. Karis Smith, too, makes apt and telling choices. She moves ensembles gracefully around the Grand’s not-so-large stage, her blocking assured and inventive. But she also inserted small, almost imperceptible staging touches—Alfredo caressing Violetta’s glove, or curtains that subtly billow in a fresh country breeze and then go limp as despair overtakes the heroine—that subtly amplified this tale.
The curtain rose on Jefferson Ridenour’s elegant and adaptable setting, with guests gathering in Violetta’s salon. Throughout the opera’s three acts (and four scene changes), the designer’s beautiful work was undergirded by the subtly changing lights of Tláloc Lopez-Watermann. Costumes by Glenn Avery Breed were mostly on point, especially Violetta’s ball gowns, enhancing her fire and sparkle, but oddly, the Parisian society ladies wore misconceived mix-and-match patterned dresses more reminiscent of operetta than grand opera.
Staging such a work is always a massively complex undertaking. La traviata’s high-society setting and remarkably challenging music, both for singers and orchestra, make it a pinnacle to be scaled, which OperaDelaware did here with assurance. Violetta declares that “pleasure is the best medicine,” and at the opening performance, a delighted audience certainly took ample pleasure in this well-staged and well-received production.
For more detail about Verdi’s La traviata, visit Opera Insights, a series of four lectures by Dr. Aaron Ziegel, Opera Baltimore scholar-in-residence and associate professor of music history and culture at Towson University, Maryland.
Above: Lindsay Ohse as Violetta in OperaDelaware’s La traviata. (Photo by Joe del Tufo at Moonloop Photography.)
What, When, Where
La traviata. Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave; directed by Kaley Karis Smith. Conducted by Domenico Boyagian. OperaDelaware. March 31 and April 2 at the Grand, 818 N Market Street, Wilmington. (302) 442-7807 or operade.org.
The Grand is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
Masks were not required.
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