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Aimed for the Heart: Opera Carolina's La Traviata at the Blumenthal

February 07, 2011

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    February 07, 2011
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    Opera Carolina News

Aimed for the Heart: Opera Carolina's La Traviata at the Blumenthal

The story of Camille, or La Dame aux Camélias, has exerted a mysterious pull on the imagination since Alexander Dumas the Younger first turned his brief novel into a play in 1848. It was the role that made Sarah Bernhardt a star, as it had done for her predecessor, Rachel, and as it would for Bernhardt's chief rival, Eleanora Duse. Greta Garbo was never more luminous on silver screen than as Camille. Nevertheless, her ultimate incarnation has proven to be Verdi's Violetta, La Traviata, or The Strayed One, the name-role of Verdi's most popular opera.

It was Piave, Verdi's chief librettist, who transformed Camille into Violetta, but it was probably Verdi's relationship to his mistress Giuseppina Strepponi, a singer who had born children out of wedlock and who had suffered opprobrium for it, that gives the music its intimacy. The premiere was a fiasco due to the corpulence of the soprano, who must appear first as a sylph and then as a wraith, but in this case was said to have weighed 300 pounds, and by the fact that it was in modern costume, which puzzled the audience. Verdi famously shrugged off this debacle, and he was vindicated within a year, when La Traviata was triumphantly restaged at the house – La Fenice – where it had failed before. It has held the boards ever since, for as much as any opera it contains (to quote Alfredo) “that love which is the breath of the universe, love mysterious and profound, at once the cross of the heart, and its delight.”

Opera Carolina's production of La Traviata was well conceived, well directed, well staged, well sung, well conducted, well done. Viewing it, I felt something tantamount to relief. This production was cohesive, and largely faithful to the work – which is all too rare in opera – thanks to the stage direction of Kay Castaldo. Not too much silly stage business. No “concept” at odds with the music. No deliberate anachronism in a far flung and irrelevant historical period and/or locale. The several pantomimed stage interpolations such as a flash-forward during the overture of Violetta's burial were discretely poetic. There may have been one or two too many licentious aristocrats in long johns dancing the Can-Can in Act Two, and I am not sure the brief hallucinatory tango to which our Violetta, Jennifer Black, was subjected in Act Three in any way helped her find her part, but these are afterthoughts; all in all, it was one of the very best productions from Opera Carolina that I've seen.

The spell of La Traviata resembles watching a candle being consumed by its own flame, its tremors and defiant flaring upwards as it melts, the surprising final annulment. Violetta is a little mad, truth be told, a consumptive “half in love with easeful death” and living on borrowed time. This is Jennifer Black's first Violetta, and she did a great deal well but she did not illumine all the facets of the part. She was most convincing in the exchange with Germont in Act Two, and in the scene at the courtesan Flora's just after. There she was a fine if rather too bouncy Violetta. But at the beginning she seemed to be a pert, self-sufficient American girl, more of a Daisy Miller than a Lilith, and in the end she seemed too vigorous to die.

The attenuated listlessness into which Violetta has fallen before Alfredo arrives in Act Three, the shortness of breath, the difficulty Violetta has in summoning her resources, the trembling of the flame near the end of the abbreviating wick – these were lacking. Shot through Black's performance were moments of genuine identification with Violetta which made this inability to rein in her native robustness elsewhere almost vexing by contrast, as in these moments a more delicately shaded portrayal seemed in reach. But that this is a matter of time and experience rather than ability is also proved by her performance.

Jonathan Boyd's Alfredo was more like Prince Vronsky in Anna Karenina than the usual chicken Alfredo, impetuous in Act One, warm and virile in Act Two, and light as gossamer – almost disembodied – in Act Three. Boyd made the emotional trajectory of Alfredo seem true, not just beautiful music; he's a fine actor and a real spinto tenor. Mark Rucker was a rock-steady, characterful Germont, alert to the nuances of his role, which he made into one of a heft almost on par with Violetta's or Alfredo's, as it should be. The subsidiary roles of Flora, the Baron Doupol, Annina, Gastone , and the Marquis were well inscribed, like characters from Daumier, and the chorus sang their feverish music with brio. Joel Revson, who conducts the Arizona opera, conducted this La Traviata with a nice understanding of how Verdi proceeds, which is to aim for the heart.

By Phillip Larrimore
Charlotte Viewpoint

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