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10 Oct 2015

La traviata, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia mixes boutique performances of avant-garde opera in a small house with more traditional productions of warhorse operas performed in the Academy of Music, America’s oldest working opera house.

La traviata, Philadelphia

A review by Andrew Moravcsik


The latter often feature rising young opera stars—as exemplified by the current run of La traviata. This opera has become, by far, the most widely performed of Verdi works, largely because it can be adequately performed by just three younger and lighter voices, rather than requiring four or five rarer spinto or dramatic voices, as do Otello, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and Aida.

The most exciting thing about this production is the debut as Violetta of Lisette Oropesa, a young Cuban-American lyric coloratura soprano from Louisiana. Oropesa rose to prominence as a member of the MET Lindeman Young Artists program and has been acclaimed there and other major houses over the half-decade since. She has much of what a great Violetta needs. It begins with extraordinary technical command: I have never heard a live singer execute much of this role (particularly the florid parts of Act One, for example the upward scales in “Sempre libera”) with such glittering precision. One does not need supertitles when she sings: she clearly knows what she is singing, and enunciates it correctly. She possesses a rich musical imagination: it is a joy to hear her vary dynamics and inflection slightly so as to avoid repeating phrases the same way twice. And she has what the marketing people at opera companies these days call the “package,” that is, sufficient good looks, acting ability, charisma and youthful energy on stage to sell opera to today’s more diverse, less musically literate audiences. The audience groaned when she died and gave her a much deserved standing ovation when she came back to life. We need more opera singers who generate such enthusiasm.

Oropesa’s achievement is doubly impressive because she does not possess a natural voice for Violetta. Despite her evident technical mastery and musical creativity, and an ability to be heard throughout the house absent five years ago, the voice lacks the Italianate warmth and glow (particularly at the ends of its register) expected in this role. Oropesa’s type of voice—cooler, slightly metallic, with a quick flutter—was much more common one hundred years ago; today we associate it with Gilda, the “ina” roles, various bel canto heroines, and Baroque opera. Creative though Oropesa is at finding ways to characterize within her means, I felt that, musically, some of pathos of a doomed woman escaped her, both musically and dramatically. That being said, hers is an interpretation of this role any opera-goer should hear.

Tenor Alek Shrader also has a light voice, and in that sense he is an appropriate Alfredo to Oropesa’s Violetta. He is, moreover, a sensitive and thoughtful musician who intermittently offered delicate phrasing and mezza voce singing, and, at times, popped off a stentorian line. But overall, his tenor voice lacks the ring, weight and bronze color required for this role. At times he was flatly inaudible, at other times, simply unconvincing. Shrader won the Met National Auditons in 2007—a moment immortalized in the film “The Audition”— and his voice seems less penetrating now than it did then, which is worrying.

As Giorgio Germont, Stephen Powell possesses much more of the voice we expect in Verdi: a large, dark resonant baritone that commands the stage from the moment he enters. Like Oropesa, he sings words as if he means them, and his Act II duet with her is (as it should be) the dramatic highlight of the evening—save perhaps for Violetta’s two big arias. Occasionally, he modulates dynamics or color to fit the circumstances, but not nearly as much as he might. Were he do that more, and highlight the text more carefully, I see no reason why—in an era where casting directors wring their hands over the lack of Verdi baritones—Powell shouldn’t be engaged by major houses worldwide.

La traviata contains more than its share of quirky characters. Standouts among them in this production are soprano Rachel Sterrenberg, a Curtis Institute student who sang well here as the maid Annina (as she did in the company’s recent production of Yardbird), and bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, a company veteran in such roles, who is appropriately deadpan as the Baron Douphol.

Music Director Corrado Rovaris can at times be uneven or cautious, but he is splendid here. The two famous preludes are played as if each is a single phrase, floated on a lovely veil of lovely legatissimo string playing, with the subtlest of dynamic inflections. (On Friday the effect was diluted, in the case of the Act 3 prelude, by those in the audience who coughed themselves back into otorhinolaryngological comfort after the intermission.) Elsewhere Rovaris keeps the tempo flowing and the volume from rising to a level that covers the singers.

The production is workaday but successful. The costumes are inoffensive, that is, elegant and a bit titillating without really expressing anything distinctive. The style aims for that 1950s revival look so fashionable with opera designers these days (I presume because it looks old, exotic and chic, but not so old and exotic that it might be taken as stuffy). And there is of course something for every taste: ladies in colorful dresses, ladies dressed as men, ladies showing a little leg, handsome men without shirts, etc. The set designs are agreeable and sensible: that is, simple, colorful, traditional and seemingly inexpensive, with a unit set accessorized with different furniture.

Andrew Moravcsik

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