jonathan boyd

‘La Traviata’: fallen woman rises again

Sterling singing and strong direction distinguish Portland Opera's latest production of Verdi's tragic perennial

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.

Aurelia Florian as Violetta in Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata.’ Photo: Cory Weaver

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.

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Rake’s Progress review: Winning collaboration

Portland Opera's production of Stravinsky's opera makes a potent pairing with Portland Art Museum's Hockney exhibit.

by BRUCE BROWNE AND DARYL BROWNE

Arts are often at their best and have the most longevity when they are a product of collaboration. The spring productions at Portland Art Museum and Portland Opera are a win-win-win collaboration: for audiences; for both arts organizations; and for the legacy of the artists themselves, past, present and future.

 Tom Rakewell (Jonathan Boyd) and Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) in Portland Opera's The Rake's Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.


Tom Rakewell (Jonathan Boyd) and Nick Shadow (David Pittsinger) in Portland Opera’s The Rake’s Progress. Photo: Karen Almond.

This all began as a half-posthumous collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and 18th century artist William Hogarth. Stravinsky viewed Hogarth’s engravings in the Chicago Art Fair in 1947, and was moved to write an opera about the story the artist portrayed. A satirist, Hogarth was a Herblock or Thomas Nast,  a kind of voyeur of the social times and mores of his place and time. His best known series of these satires is The Rake’s Progress, his middle morality tale, sandwiched between The Harlot’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode.

Stravinsky went in search of a librettist. In 1948,  he was introduced to W.H. Auden by the writer Aldous Huxley, a Hollywood neighbor. The two artists hit it off and the operatic collaboration for The Rake’s Progress began. The opera premiered in Venice in 1951, directed by Stravinsky himself.

Fourteen years later, John Cox, director of Glyndebourne Festival in England, was in search of a way to revitalize the now-popular Rake’s Progress at its eighth British production of the opera since 1953. He invited British artist David Hockney to provide set and costume design and it was this collaboration that has traveled three more decades to Portland Opera’s production this weekend.

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