Monday, April 23, 2012
Opera review: La Traviata at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
La Traviata, when done right, is one of the greatest operas ever.
If you want to see a classic opera done magnificently, I suggest you immediately purchase tickets to Dallas Opera's La Traviata. Everything you expect from the art form is on display currently at the Winspear Opera House (playing through April 29).
You know you are watching a well-conceived and executed production when the curtain rises and the set is so stunning the audience breaks out in applause. Premium tickets for opera can run high, so when you spend that kind of money, you need to see a production that is not just a visual feast, but aural too, and emotionally satisfying. Dallas Opera gets a perfect score in all three areas on this production. It knocks your socks off.
Where to begin?
Let's start with the sets. Oh, those sets! The Dallas Opera proved with their last production of Tristan and Isolde that sets aren't needed anymore because they used digital projection to such a stellar effect. In La Traviata they've gone the conventional route with gasp inducing, sumptuous sets. This production is done in conjunction with the Florida Grand Opera. Obviously both companies used their funds to create a stunning visual feast. It's beautiful, elegant and full of design elements that have meaning, and at times even menace. The sets are a three dimensional work of art. The grandeur is enhanced by the tremendous amount of detail. Crown molding, tassels, brocades, towering doors, trellises, vines, chandeliers, etc. adorn this set and each particular item is beautiful and imbued with symbolism. An example is the repetitive use of a stone wreath. At times it symbolizes the opulent elegance of the home, at other times it becomes a halo representing the noble and true love of the two lovers, and an ominous foreshadowing of death.
The costumes are spectacular. The bustles, the tuxedos, the gloves, the jewelry, fans, etc. all are done with the most meticulous attention to detail. The Opera is set in the late 1800s and in one scene there is a costumed ball. The costumes presented are period interpretations of what these characters living in Paris would have thought Chinese, Spanish and Romanian costumes would have looked like. The accuracy in styling and design is unparalleled.
The costuming doesn't just serve to dress the characters but serves to enhance them and their evolution throughout the opera. The heroine Violetta begins the Opera in a sumptuous teal blue gown with black trim, and as her illness progresses and she regains her noble status, her dresses become lighter in color till she's enrobed in white as if she were a saintly and ghostly apparition.
All these sets, designs and costumes are created by a single person: Allen Charles Klein. Genius. He perfectly understands this Opera and the need for the design elements to not just wow the audience visually but help push the story along.
La Traviata is considered one of the best operas ever composed. The story is about a courtesan Violetta who lives a life of luxury. She is also ill with tuberculosis. She falls in love with Alfredo and gives up her lifestyle to be with him. I won't divulge much more. But if you've seen the film Moulin Rouge, you'll recognize many of the plot twists and developments as the storyline is very similar.
In order for the opera to succeed, the audience can't at any point realize that the story is a true melodrama. It has to play out as if every moment is real. I have seen La Traviata so many times I've lost count, and I've always enjoyed the music by Verdi, for it is in my opinion his best score. The libretto by Piave is wonderful. It's poetic, nuanced, and at no moment do any lines sound false. The problem with past productions of this opera is that the singers concentrate so much on the demanding score they forget to imbue the words sung with true emotional meaning and subtext. In this production every performer, except for one of the minor characters, delivers a complex and fulfilling performance.
To say that Myrtó Papatasiu has an exceptional voice is an understatement. Her Violetta is definitive. There is no effort in her reaching for the high notes. Her vocal control in all of her runs makes it as if singing the role is as easy as breathing. Her tone is gorgeous and she is pitch-perfect. I caught myself awed with an open mouth several times for I could not believe the purity and expressivity of her voice. This singer is doing her debut in the United States. It is easy to see why this young singer has made an impression the world over with her voice. It was a thrill and honor to see her sing.
She's also an astounding actor too. The fact that Violetta has tuberculosis causes many problems with singers who try to interpret the role. In order to feel for her we must see the slow progression of the disease. Frequently the singers perform the role as if she is in full health until the very end when they overplay the illness. Other times they play it as a sickly woman throughout. Papatasiu shows the progression of the disease slowly and evenly. She's robust at the beginning with a minor cough. As the opera progresses her posture changes subtly. By the end when she's having difficulty standing we believe it. Through all of this we must also see a young woman that is being cut down in her prime, who has mixed emotions between living a life she's accustomed to or living with a man she's in love with and giving up her lifestyle. Her internal conflict is real and palpable.
James Valenti, as her suitor Alfredo, literally brought tears to my eyes. When he first declares his love for her it is so honestly pure that it caused a swell of emotion in me. Oh, to be loved like that! He is also one of our great young tenors of our time, so to hear him sing this role with such truth and with such raw emotion makes his performance one that will be compared to for many years.
Tim Mix gets to play the unenviable role of the Baron. He normally is hated and seen as an ogre. He too finds subtleties in his delivery that makes his rage of jealousy understandable to an audience. He also has a powerful voice that commands attention.
Giorgio Germont, as Alfredo's father, gives a spectacular performance. He is also a character that frequently the audience hates, for he's trying to come in between his son and his lover. But Germont decides to play the character in a much gentler and mild way. His anxiety over the ruin of the family's name is understood. His love for his son can be felt, and the audience can forgive him for interfering. The take on this role is the best I've ever seen. He also has one of the best baritone voices I've ever heard.
Susan Nicely as Violetta's maid, Annina, is a small role in regards to the amount of singing required by the character. This said, she has lots of stage time so it requires a formidable talent to keep the audience engaged in her character since she remain silent most of the time. Her ever building anguish at seeing Violetta's illness progress truly can be felt. She also has a way of singing that is enchanting to the ears.
Amanda Crier as Flora Bervoix, Violetta's friend, brings a few moments of levity and she does it beautifully. Her mezzo-soprano voice begs for her to be in a larger role, it's that wonderful. What is most enjoyable is that she knew how far to go with the character without destroying the overall serious tone of the opera.
Mark McCrory as the Marchese gave a very competent portrayal that does justice to the character. His bass voice is also full, rich and very on point.
Ethan Herschenfeld plays the Doctor. He must deliver the bad news about Violetta's condition and then turn around and lie to her to give her some hope. Usually he's a character that seems serviceable but here he proves why even a small role is key. Through the wonderful use of his voice and his demeanor he is able to communicate the anguish he feels in knowing he will not be able to save his patient.
Steven Haal as Giuseppe, and Bobby L. Tinnion and Kyle Logan Hancock as servants prove how competent they are as singers in their roles. What I particularly enjoy about these three men is that they come onstage as fully developed characters even though the roles are minor.
If there is one performance that doesn't quite work for me, it's the role of Gaston, played by Aaron Blake. I think Blake has an outstanding tenor voice. And while I've criticized him in the past for not being sufficiently loud enough, this time around he demonstrates he is capable of being heard clearly. His character is flamboyant but he goes overboard with the character and becomes more of a caricature then a three dimensional human being. With such realism portrayed on stage his style of performance doesn't seem to fit in.
This opera has one important dance sequence in it. Rosa Mercedes, who both choreographs the sequence and dances in it alongside Armand and Riley Moryano, does a superb job. All three are lyrical, expressive, and delightful.
Thomas Hase displays special mastery in lighting this opera. With so many enormous set pieces, swags, screens, doors, and furniture filling the set, there is bound to be problems with shadows. Not here. The opera is sumptuously lit at times, delicate at others, and even menacing when needed. He understands that lights don't just illuminate the stage but can also serve as an emotional reflection of the characters.
Bliss Hebert's direction is superb. He creates stunning stage pictures. While I would have liked a little bit more movement in the opening party scene on the part of the crowd (my only complaint), he is able to push his performers to deliver seminal performances. He also must have been aware of the inherent misogyny in the story line and he ensures that the antagonists' roles in the opera don't come across as just that. By working against the melodramatic elements in the opera he proved why La Traviata, when done right, is one of the greatest operas ever.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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