by BRUCE BROWNE
It is 1840s Paris and the population is booming. Just outside the gaslight’s glow, the new urban lady of the evening offers her talents. She is a courtesan and her life will become a fascination in the literary, visual and performing arts.
“La Traviata” translates as “The Fallen Woman,” hardly royalty or swashbuckler. Giuseppe Verdi put her center stage, and opera goers continue to enjoy her life of glorious highs and tragic lows.
Verdi fast-tracked Alexander Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias, taking the 1848 novel/1852 stage play to an operatic premiere in March of 1853. It was not well received. Fortunately for Verdi, however, his hugely successful Il Trovatore (which premiered two months earlier) provided a cushion. Verdi was able to regroup, recast the anti-heroine Violetta and the now-beloved opera was off and running by 1855.
Dumas’ novel, with the fictional “lady of the camellias” Marguerite, was based on his own love affair with Marie Duplessis (alias), a respected courtesan in the Paris society of the early 1840s. The legitimizing – the humanizing – of this courtesan has spawned dozens of “Camille” movies (e.g. Theda Bera, 1917, and Greta Garbo, 1936) and ballets. Julia Roberts launched her career as a “Pretty Woman” of New York. Dumas wrote a good story and both it and its protagonist have survived and thrived.
Verdi’s (and librettist Piave’s) operatic version of the drama is expertly sculpted. The emotional highs and lows, the hypocrisy, the social/political landscape, the tension and ecstasy of young love… it’s all there – along with Verdi’s marvelous music, of course – and last Sunday afternoon, Portland Opera Association staged and performed all aspects of the epic work to full effect. Scenery and costumes were scintillating; orchestra and chorus were joined at the hip, and the solo roles, fervently and beautifully sung. Every solo singer was in fabulous voice; it was as balanced a total cast as I have ever heard in a Portland Opera performance.
Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian, in the role of Violetta, sings with a flexible, vibrant voice, capable of a variety of nuances in dynamics and color. After a few fluttery vocal moments in the first Act, she settled into the persona of Violetta. She was captivating in the entire aria “È Strano” (It is strange) and the succeeding “dialog” with Alfredo, her potential lover, by taking on a Scarlett O’Hara-like naiveté. Such a lovable coquette.
Her multi-layered performance continued to the final act, where Violetta collapses in a cacophony of consumptive coughs. (Actually Ms. Florian did not cough aloud, unlike the person sitting in the row behind me, who did many times, without so much as a handkerchief. Cough and sneeze police, deploy please; this is cold and flu season.)
Our Alfredo, tenor Jonathan Boyd, fresh from an appearance in last spring’s POA Faust, brandished his platinum tones through every aria. And Weston Hurt, playing Alfredo’s father Germont, is the best baritone I’ve heard on this stage in recent memory: pliable vocal line, glittering high notes, and full command of the entire register.
Smaller roles were equally well done: Portland area baritone Damien Geter was a strong presence as Dr. Grenvil, and tenor David Warner a perfect choice as Gastone, displaying his warm lyric tenor voice especially in Act I.
The company’s opera chorus gets better and better. Verdi chorus parts are not just something to toss off after a few glasses of champagne (the “drink” of choice on stage). Singers were well coached, vocally and dramatically. And they entered and exited the stage as if on skateboards — whoosh. Big positive impact on dramatic pacing.
Elise Sandell, stage director, is to be applauded for this and all of the stage movement. Never contrived, the humans on stage were real characters, not cut-outs.The furniture and window treatments (draperies and glass) and props were balanced and effective, important given the large number of interior scenes. In contrast, the cartoonishly painted-on “framed” works and plates adorning the walls were a distraction.
The orchestra and its director, Christopher Larkin, deserve highest praise. Never overpowering the singers, they brought to the music a wealth of nuance and expression, controlling tempo as needed. Larkin followed the soloists, requested and received dynamic variety from the instruments, and propelled the dramatic tempo throughout.
In the wake of Portland Opera’s switch to a summer season last year, General Director Christopher Mattaliano and his advisors have taken a right turn in regaining the ground of autumn by choosing to mount Traviata at this time, providing a spicy major work to begin the fall season through a summer of Mozart, Glass and Rossini. Welcome to POA 2018-19.
Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties.
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