Sunday, July 13, 2003

'Traviata' has clumsy start, powerful finish

Opera review

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Small wonder that Verdi's opera La Traviata has been an audience favorite for 150 years. Verdi's irresistible tunes unfold, one after another. The tale of the beautiful "fallen woman," Violetta Valery - who finds love, loses it, and then dies of tuberculosis in her lover's arms - has a timeless, sentimental appeal.

Cincinnati Opera's La Traviata, mounted Thursday in a production from Chicago's Lyric Opera, began unevenly. But by Act II, the excellent cast - including Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian, as the doomed courtesan; Miroslav Dvorsky as her beloved Alfredo; and Mark Delavan as his meddling father - had won the crowd of 3,014.

Some of the most impressive work came from the pit, where Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, making her American opera company debut, inspired luminous playing from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and supported the singers with seamless precision.

The curtain rose on Violetta's opulent Paris home, where elegant tables were set with candelabras. The set (Desmond Heeley) was grand in scale, yet evocative, transforming into an airy garden, Flora's bordello-red salon and finally, Violetta's spare, ghostly bedroom.

Papian possesses a voice of stunning power, glorious color and dead-on intonation. Her last-act aria, "Addio, del passato," in which she bids farewell to life, was beautifully sung and deeply felt; her final duet with Alfredo was one of the evening's most touching moments.

Act I, though, was a disappointment, starting with some rocky ensemble in the opening moments. Papian's showpiece, "Sempre libera," lacked sparkle; her coloratura seemed forced rather than carefree, and she ditched the final high note. She seemed emotionally detached through most of the evening, but once over the Act I hurdle, relaxed and projected more charm and vulnerability.

Dvorsky was a charismatic Alfredo with a strong, virile tenor, although I wished for more warmth in his Act II aria, "De'miei bollenti spiriti" ("My passionate spirit"). His impassioned outburst at Flora's party was memorable for its power and fury.

Delavan, as Germont, burst upon the scene with a startlingly robust voice, as he confronted Violetta to break up her love affair with his son. His great Act II aria, "Di provenza il mar," sung to Alfredo, was rich with character and feeling.

Smaller roles were also well sung, particularly Rachel Holland as Flora, Alvin Crawford as the doctor and Sarah Mattox as Annina, the maid.

Staging, though, by Thor Steingraber, was static. One didn't feel any real chemistry between the lovers until the final scene; Germont's confrontation scene with Violetta was stilted.

The gambling scene came off successfully, however, with wonderful color supplied by dancers Cheryl Sullivan and Jay Goodlett. Cincinnati Ballet's Victoria Morgan choreographed the sensuous gypsy dance and athletic matador moves.

The chorus, superbly prepared by Henri Venanzi, turned in its strongest performance so far this season, consistently singing with robust, lively expression.

Through it all, the orchestra sounded exquisite. Zhang brought out the score's detail and kept a light touch, never overpowering the singers. In particular, the music of the orchestral preludes and the final scene captured the opera's spirit with breathtaking beauty.



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