Friday, June 15, 2018

'La Traviata' opens renovated Music Hall for Cincinnati Opera season

Alfredo (Ji-Min Park) woos Violetta (Norah Amsellem) the courtesan he's admired from afar.
Never before have I enjoyed the opportunity of seeing two different productions of a core-repertoire opera within 15 days. Endless comparisons could be made, but in covering Cincinnati Opera's opening-night (June 14) performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata," I've decided that's my proper focus. So I will bring in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' English-language version, which I attended May 30, at just a single point.

The Cincinnati production is owned by Chicago Lyric Opera. It has an expansive, old-fashioned look, well suited to mark the reopening of Music Hall, once again the company's home after two years away. The opening scene at Violetta Valery's house speaks to the glamour associated with the heroine at the height of her cachet in mid-19th-century Paris. The stage picture of the courtesan's lavish lifestyle, despite the tragic turn the opera takes, is an echo of the generosity that Cincinnati Opera needed to call forth to accomplish a renovation costing $143 million.

The party guests are a well-turned-out crowd in a setting that meets the eye attractively in Desmond Heeley's costume and set design. But the first thing to link the opera with the hall's renovation is the sound in the prelude of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, as conducted by Renato Balsadonna, making his Cincinnati Opera debut.

The orchestra sound blossoms now at all dynamic levels, favoring the softer end of the spectrum during the prelude. As the performance unfolded, the transparency of the accompaniment was remarkable, and Balsadonna was particularly effective drawing forth such subtleties as the thin texture behind Violetta's spoken reading of a letter from Giorgio Germont in the last act, as well as the foreboding lower-string figures that follow as the doomed heroine sings her farewell to the world.

Dramatically, the performance found the core of the action from the outset. The superficiality of upper-class life, given an extra fillip when one of the entering party guests casually flips his cape upon a servant's head, was picturesquely portrayed under Linda Brovsky's stage direction. She gave an individuality to them all, though that impression may have been more apparent than real, as one necessarily focuses on Violetta and the quickly generated passion between her and a young admirer, Alfredo Germont. Apart from a rushed acknowledgment that the approaching daybreak required their departure, the guests were also vocally lively and precisely coordinated.

The Parisian upper crust parties, with the fashionable Violetta at the center.
As Alfredo, Ji-Min Park indicated the young man's head-over-heels infatuation gesturally and vocally. He justified the rapt attention the libretto calls for  the gathering to give Alfredo with a robustly delivered drinking song, "Libiamo." He radiated self-confidence that hardly made the character's initial shyness believable. When they were alone, the rapport with Norah Amsellem's Violetta was intense.

The coloratura emphasis of the soprano's role in the first act did not display Amsellem at her best:
The rapid singing was overlaid with vibrato, which seemed to put a drag on her agility, though coordination with the orchestra stayed intact. Fiercely articulated high notes were sometimes yelled. But I was struck by an indication of what she would bring to the role later by the way she sang "Ah, fors'รจ lui," a slow aria in the midst of the vocal fireworks. She brought a genuinely reflective manner to it, uncanny insofar as it could have been Violetta's wordless inmost thoughts about the possibility of true love coming her way, against her better instincts (expressed in the subsequent coloratura outburst, "Sempre libera").

The dramatic gifts of both principals really shone in the first scene of Act 2.  Set in the country house to which Alfredo and Violetta have happily settled, she having abandoned her dissolute life, the action tugs the main characters every which way, sparked by the heavy interference of Alfredo's father. I liked the self-satisfaction that Park embodied as Alfredo celebrates his newfound happiness, a relaxation interrupted by the information that Violetta has secretly impoverished herself providing for the couple. Alfredo's mood turns on a dime, as he resolves to assume responsibility for the lovers' debts; Park's performance of Alfredo's exit aria blazed with brilliance.

The music takes on a somber cast with the entrance of Giorgio, played with the right hint of warmth by Youngjoo An, despite the senior Germont's initial severity.  He combined provincial propriety with a humane quality that becomes more characteristic of him later on. You felt that An's Germont could indeed embrace Violetta as a daughter, as she requests him to do after agreeing to make the sacrifice he asks. Balsadonna's patient pacing of the lengthy Germont-Violetta scene was superb, as was the tense colloquy between father and son that followed.

Often commented upon is the variety of vocal and dramatic gifts needed in the title role. I can't resist Ernest Newman's description of the initial change in the heroine: "In the second act we are suddenly confronted with a new Violetta, all tenderness and goodness and self-sacrifice, without so much as a coloratura trill or roulade left in her." Good thing, too, with this Violetta: Amsellem was moving into territory where she seemed fully at home. Her noble request to Germont to convey best wishes to his daughter, who will only be able to enter into an advantageous marriage if the courtesan agrees to abandon Alfredo, could have brought a lump to the most stoical throat.  In Act 2's second scene, in which the effervescence of upper-crust social life is ominously revisited, her Violetta was a veritable tangle of anguished second thoughts right up through her shocking humiliation at Alfredo's hands.

By the third act, when her consumption is bringing the no-longer-fashionable courtesan to the brink of death, Amsellem's performance was transcendent. The aforementioned "farewell" aria, ending with "all is over now" barely breathed out as she lay on the floor, elicited the show's most prolonged ovation. A Violetta in Act 3 must literally sing as if her life depended on it. This is what we got from Amsellem, who conveyed a woman on a believable transition from earthly suffering to the blissful life beyond. As arresting as OTSL's ending was, with Violetta already in the next world as she sings her last lines, this "Traviata" kept the heroine achingly in the real world until the very end, when she suffers a fatal collapse while rushing toward the permanently remorseful Alfredo.

Cincinnati Opera's "La Traviata" is a lavish and also deep-delving portrait of a legendary woman and her milieu. English translations of the title struggle to do her justice, yet to some extent all of them strike home. A prim Victorian version of the title is "The Strayed Reveller." When Violetta uses the word "traviata" twice near the end, one translation renders her self-description as "an erring soul." Another just frankly has her call herself "a fallen woman."  The broadly assertive humanity that animates this production prompts me to prefer "an erring soul" — as we all are, more or less.

[Photos by Philip J. Groshong]