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La Traviata

Union Avenue Opera, 2014

Chuck Lavazzi – KDHX

History tells us the 1853 premiere of Verdi’s La Traviata was something of a disaster, capped by the fatal miscasting (opposed unsuccessfully by the composer) of a soprano whose girth, in the view of the audience, made her attempts to portray a consumptive beauty laughable rather than tragic.

Over 150 years later, Union Avenue Opera has opened their 20th anniversary season with a La Traviata that’s at the other end of the spectrum. It might not be perfect, but it’s close enough for me. It has a dream cast, wonderfully clear and precise singing by the chorus, impeccable playing by the orchestra under Scott Schoonover, and direction by Tim Ocel which manages to be innovative while still respecting Francesco Maria Piave’s text and Verdi’s music.

Let’s start with the singers. As Violetta, the courtesan dying of love and tuberculosis, soprano Zulimar López-Hernández has a spectacular voice that manages the coloratura flash of “Sempre libera” as easily as the delicate lyricism of “Un dì felice,” the amorous Act I duet with Alfredo. Better yet she acts the role with total conviction—her death scene is a certified tearjerker—and she certainly looks like the kind of woman who might be the toast of Paris. The standing ovation for her during the curtain call was both enthusiastic and well deserved.

Tenor Riccardo Iannello is Alfredo, fresh from the sticks and madly in love with Violetta. His character doesn’t have quite as many opportunities to shine as Violetta, but he makes the most of them. His Act II aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti”—in which he reflects on the joy of his idyllic life with Violetta at the latter’s country house outside Paris—drew shouts of bravo on opening night. He’s not, perhaps, in quite Ms. López-Hernández’s class as an actor. His build-up to the Act II finale, for example, in which Alfredo scorns Violetta for her supposed infidelity and is then scored in turn by Violetta’s friends and nearly disowned by his father Giorgio, was not entirely credible on opening night. But once he got to the emotional peak of that scene his remorse and grief were palpable.

As Alfredo’s scandalized father, baritone and UAO regular Robert Garner is compelling and sings a beautiful “Di Provenza il mar” in Act II. He is, perhaps, a bit too reliant on stock operatic gestures at times but overall it’s a solid performance and powerfully sung.

Possibly the biggest indicator of the strength of this production is the quality of the performances in the smaller roles. As Violetta’s maid Annina, St. Louis’s own Debby Lennon is a warm and sympathetic presence. Debra Hillabrand is appropriately giddy as Violetta’s friend Flora, and Mark Freiman is a wonderfully unpleasant Baron Douphol. There’s great work as well from Anthony Heinemann as Gastone, Phillip Bullock as Marquis d’Obigny, Robert Reed as Doctor Grenvil, Jon Garrett as Giuseppe, and Philip Touchette as the Act II Messenger.

Let me now praise the chorus. Verdi’s big ensemble numbers are invariably showstoppers, especially when sung with this kind of power and clarity. Their performance of the Act I drinking song “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” illustrates why this is a popular operatic excerpt, and they make that big Act II finale wonderfully powerful.

Under Mr. Schoonover’s direction the orchestra delivers a nicely paced reading of the score from the very beginning. Those opening chords in the strings are very exposed and can easily get the opera off on the wrong foot if not delivered as well as they are here.

Tim Ocel directs with a light hand, mostly content to let the opera tell its story without a lot of gimmicks. His one departure from tradition is to make it all a kind of memory play, taking place in Violetta’s tomb. During the orchestral prelude Alfredo, dressed in a somber brown suit, enters with a bouquet of flowers and quietly sits by the grave downstage right. As the opening party scene begins, he puts down the flowers and makes his entrance. It’s a pattern that repeats throughout the opera, reminding us that everything is taking place in Alfredo’s memory—an image reinforced by the fact that his costume remains unchanged all evening.

The concept works surprisingly well. Patrick Huber’s set, with its massive stone arches reflecting the actual architecture of Union Avenue’s performance space in the Union Avenue Christian Church, is a constant reminder of the fact that death lurks at the heart of the opera’s story. In combination with Maureen Berry’s evocative lighting, it also allows him to make good use of the massive stained glass window that dominates the space above the stage.

Teresa Dogget (a.k.a. “the hardest-working woman in St. Louis show business”) has provided colorful and character-appropriate costumes and wigs, although it’s not clear from the program which ones are hers and which ones came from the Utah Opera and The Rep. She presumably had final say over what got used, though, so I have no hesitation about giving her top billing.

Put it all together and you have a very strong start to Union Avenue’s season. Opera lovers should put this on their “don’t miss” list, but opera newbies should give it serious thought as well. La Traviata is not that long by operatic standards (just over two and one-half hours, including two intermissions), its story is clear and compelling, and the projected English text makes it all very approachable. Verdi was, after all, a man of the theatre who had an unerring feel for what did and didn’t work on stage.

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