Sunday, November 19, 2017

Indianapolis Opera trains its renewed bright lights upon a repertory staple, Verdi's 'La Traviata'

The production of "La Traviata" that local opera fans are seeing this weekend at the Tarkington in Carmel reflects the collaborative mood of Indianapolis Opera's new management. It got some seasoning in Evansville first, just over a week ago,  with orchestra and chorus members from that city. Today it concludes a three-day stand at the Center for the Performing Arts.
Violetta (Emily Birsan) gives vent to her joie de vivre at a Paris party.

The production team stayed intact, headed by Jon Truitt as stage director, Alfred Savia as conductor. The Evansville conductor, familiar to Indianapolis audiences through his association dating from the 1990s with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, wanted to revive opera in Evansville, where he's led the Evansville Philharmonic for decades.

It looks as if there will be a continuing link between opera there and opera here every other year, according to IO's general director, David Craig Starkey. Truitt, who had directed opera at the University of Evansville and now teaches at Ball State University, felt the same about boosting opera in Indiana's southernmost big city. His friendship with Starkey through staging operas in Asheville, N.C., is now bearing fruit here.

As seen Saturday night, "La Traviata" has its essentials intact. The production sits well in the intimate space of the Tarkington. Much of its success came from the scrupulous pacing of the music under Savia's baton, using adept local musicians. I wish the preludes to the first and third acts could have proceeded without the formal choreography that accompanied them; it would have settled the audience into the pathos of the story without the implication that abstract dance movement for three couples adds something pertinent.

There are some cuts to bring each performance within a three-hour limit, as well as to concentrate the story on the three-way relationship among the initially shy but increasingly ardent Alfredo, the stylish but consumptive courtesan Violetta whom he loves, and Alfredo's provincial father, Giorgio Germont. Although understandable from a cost and staging standpoint, the elimination of the costumed gypsy dancers and imitation bullfighters at the second-act party was regrettable.

Something of the extravagant frivolity of the Parisian beau monde was thus not impressed upon the audience — a milieu in contrast with the tension between the financially stressed young lovers and the resistance to their romance by Alfredo's dad. A supertitle reference to "the maskers" whose appearance party hostess Flora anticipates remains as a ghostly reminder of the omission. The ensemble singing, prepared by longtime IO chorus director John Schmid, is good enough to offer partial compensation for the trimmed revelry. In Act 1, the chorus also did much to establish Violetta's tinselly world and her illness-dogged place in it.

Violetta and Alfredo start feeling mutual attraction in Indianapolis Opera's "Traviata."
The stage picture is especially weak in the second-act party scene as well, since the backdrop — including a gnarled tree — is identical to the scene before it, set in the expensive country estate that the lovers occupy to test and enjoy their fraught affair. That's where their love is threatened on a couple of accounts: its debilitating costliness and family opposition to the liaison between the passionate, profligate scion and "the fallen woman" (one of a few reasonably accurate translations of the opera's title). The roiling clouds behind the action don't quite make the estate look like bucolic bliss, but with some shifting for the last act, they can be taken as an abstract symbol of Violetta's inevitable fate: succumbing to tuberculosis in Paris at the very moment of reconciliation with the junior and senior Germonts.

Emily Birsan put a glorious stamp upon all aspects of Violetta — the first act's  high-spirited coquette with a soul, the self-sacrificial heroine of Act 2, and the fading flower showing a few bursts of vivid color of Act 3. If some of her high notes overshot the mark in "Sempre libera," for the most part her coloratura remained brilliant and well-honed. Her Violetta projected reciprocal interest in Alfredo despite herself; the conflict within the character was managed well. I liked the touch of her twirling a camellia as she contemplated continuing her freedom untrammeled by true love, then dropping the flower upon hearing Alfredo's offstage declaration of love.

She was touching in responding to the initially fierce Germont in Act 2, and put much apt variation in her vocal production to register the searing cost of the sacrifice the protective old man is demanding of her. "Dite alla giovene," Violetta's plea to have what she is doing for the Germont family known to them, wrenched the heart as it should. The ebb and flow of Violetta's energy, both vocal and physical, was exquisitely managed in the finale.

Gregory Turay's Alfredo was appropriately diffident about launching the drinking song he is asked to supply in the first act. It was one of the few indications of the hero's shyness, and it was well worth establishing, because his long-nurtured infatuation for Violetta soon sweeps everything else away as the fires of love are stoked. Turay colored and softened his capable tenor marvelously in duets with the soprano, but more variation of timbre and volume elsewhere would have been welcome. White-hot passion, ironically enough, doesn't have to be monochromatic to be felt as such.

As Germont, Christopher Burchett came across as what's been called "the heavy father" type as he meets Violetta for the first time in Act 2. The characterization softened as the conversation went along, and his somewhat reedy baritone became more attractive. His plea to Alfredo later in the act, "Di provenza il mar," had the flavor of both Germont's paternal provincialism and his heartfelt need to console his son for the breakup the old man has engineered. Thus his near-sobbing delivery of the second strophe didn't seem out of place.

Of the other roles, I was struck by the sincerity and compassionate ring that Oliver Worthington gave to Doctor Grenvil and soprano Shannon Paige Christie to Annina, faithfully attending the dying Violetta and helping to establish, before the repentant Germonts rush in, that the admirable courtesan is nowhere near as friendless as she has supposed. Her final cry of "Joy!" lifts up all Violetta's awareness of her protracted suffering to a transcendent plane and, as performed Saturday night, sent out the indelible message that joy in life is all the more precious for its evanescence.

[Photos by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

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