When the U of A’s Opera Theater announced it would mount Verdi’s La Traviata* as its 2012 fall production, Stage Director Charles Roe and Music Director Thomas Cockrell must have realized that they were taking on their biggest artistic challenge since their first collaboration of Little Women in 2006. It came as no surprise that it took four performances of the opera from November 15 to 18 to reach the artistic success that the entire company desired.
But what turned out to be the biggest asset in the Opera Theater’s production of Verdi’s most intimate opera was the casting of Yunnie Park and Christy McClarty as the composer’s tragic heroine, Violetta. It was a pleasure to hear these two sopranos who, previously, brought great passion and vocal strengths to Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Menotti’s The Consul, add another great role to their repertoire. Although it took a second performance from each soprano to reach the artistic level I’m sure both singers strove for, it was well worth the wait.
Park’s Violetta was filled with gleaming legato, traveling through the role’s dynamics, from forte to pianissimo with vocal ease. At the first performance, Park couldn’t quite line up her character’s body language with her vocals, but by the second outing, her movements and vocals were truly in sync allowing her to deliver a beautiful Violetta. McClarty’s first Violetta also found her molding the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements to fit the natural soulful warmth her voice projected throughout her second performance which accented the sadness apparent in Violetta’s character.
Both Park and McClarty’s vocal arsenals are such that they can easily project the dynamics of mezza voce and piano whenever Verdi calls for them, and these vocals are a must for Violetta. And if you are a closeted lover of high notes, both sopranos hit beautifully placed and dramatic high C’s at the end of the Sempre Libra, Violetta’s rationale for her courtesan lifestyle which ends Act One.
Both Humberto Borboa Beltran and Guillermo Lopez Gutierrez as Alfredo, Violetta’s impassioned, youthful lover, had to pass through the learning curve of a first performance to reach the role’s vocal demands in their second one. Beltran displayed a vibrant, youthful voice capable of forte and mezza forte dynamics. Gutierrez fostered a firm vocal interpretation, but at times strayed from the pitch. Both tenors gave good renditions of Alfredo’s second act aria, De’miei bollenti spirti if not with the cheerful nonchalance the aria required. They are, however, welcomed additions to the Opera Theater with secure futures ahead of them.
For the first time, considering all his artistic successes with the Opera Theater, Seth Kershisnik met up with a role that did not suit his personality. He could not act out the required paternal demands of the role of Germont that Verdi composed for him. As Alfredo’s father, who confronts the insecure Violetta in their great second act duet, he moved aimlessly through the role. More’s the pity because, vocally, Kershisnik moved smoothly up and down the scale, showing how easily he could handle the wide vocal range Verdi composed for his Germont.
Charles Hamilton’s Germont was on firmer ground dramatically. With McClarty, the baritone was able to keep both his concern and distance on an even keel. Vocally, he was able to handle Verdi’s vocal demands showing just a dash of strain at the very top of his voice. And he had an easier time coping with Roe’s over-emphasis on the caring side of Germont’s character. There were too many pats on the head and warm embraces with Violetta. These indulgent gestures are not in Germont’s vocabulary, and it lessened the dramatic effect Verdi intended for the one embrace Violetta and Germont have at the end of their Act Two duet.
The chorus in La Traviata is also a major player. Verdi composed three choral sections that comment directly on the opera’s story. In Act One, the opening party scene has the chorus joining Violetta and Alfredo in the very famous Brindisi, probably the most well-known drinking song in the opera canon. The chorus also ends the act with a rousing farewell to Violetta at her home. And in Act Three, at Flora’s house party, its music is so skillfully intertwined with Alfredo’s vitriolic denunciation of the heroine and Germont’s admonition to his son for daring to insult a woman in public, it shows how much Verdi truly loved his heroine.
Under Bruce Chamberlain’s direction, the chorus created flashes of musical splendor. I have never heard the exit music from Act One sung with such vocal polish and attention to Verdi’s choral details. No doubt, Chamberlain will be on hand for future productions, another feather in Roe and Cockrell’s artistic cap. In addition, Chamberlain’s choral work brought a real life force to Roe’s “stand and sing” direction for the chorus.
Again, Sally Day was successful in mounting a set which Roe wanted for the opera’s original 1850 time period. She represented it by using five tall panels that doubled for doorways and windows, strategically placing them to look like the interior of Violetta and Flora’s Parisian homes and Violetta’s country house in Act Two. There was, however, a minor distraction with doors not closing on cue.
The costumes, especially for the women, that Christopher Allen and his shop crew presented were colorful and in line with the hooped skirts popular in the mid-19th Century. They not only complimented the shades of green and gray in Day’s sets, but Allen added some deep reds and blues to fill out the overall color scheme of the production. The women in the chorus wore the correct wigs for the period; however, those for Park and McClarty did not blend harmoniously with Allen’s beautiful white and mauve costumes he designed for the protagonists.
Conductor Thomas Cockrell kept the Arizona Symphony Orchestra moving at a brisk pace, revealing how Verdi wanted Violetta’s life story to unfold in a dramatic, but swift fashion. But in the Act One and Act Three preludes, where Verdi musically languishes over Violetta’s plight, Cockrell had the orchestra tread slowly through all the haunting measures, letting the strings take the lead in expressing Violetta’s sorrow. Their diminuendi and carefully-timed pauses were very touching.
Ace Edewards, who joined the conducting staff this year, led the Sunday afternoon performance. He closely paralleled Cockrell’s pacing, demonstrating just how well the Symphony Orchestra can follow the lead of more than one conductor. This production shows how much time and effort Roe and Cockrell are putting into raising the vocal and musical standards with every new operatic adventure.
November 15,16,17 & 18, 2012 Crowder Hall The University of Arizona
* The Story of the Opera Paris c.1850 The consumptive Violetta has won the love of Alfredo. He declares himself to her, but she is reluctant to enter into any serious attachment. Violetta and Alfredo have been living together in the country for three months. While Alfredo is away, his father Giorgio Germont calls. He appeals to Violetta to break off this scandalous relationship since it is endangering the forthcoming marriage of his daughter. Because of her love for Alfredo, she agrees. As Violetta leaves, Alfredo is handed a letter from her declaring they must part. He notices an invitation to a party from Violetta’s friend Flora and is sure he will find her there. Violetta has gone to the party with her former protector, Baron Douphol. Alfredo arrives and Violetta pleads with him to leave before the Baron challenges him to a duel. Her unfaithfulness angers Alfredo, and he flings at her money he has won at cards as repayment for what she has spent on him. Germont arrives and reprimands his son for his conduct.
Several weeks later, and Violetta is seriously ill. In a letter to her, Germont admits that he revealed her sacrifice to his son. Alfredo enters and begs forgiveness; he promises that they will spend the rest of their lives together in happiness. He then realizes how ill Violetta is. She finds strength momentarily and rises to her feet, but falls dead.
Summary from: The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera John Warrack andEvan West Third Edition 1996