For more than a century and a half, La Traviata has been one of opera’s enduring favorites, beloved equally by neophytes and aficionados.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get right. Dramatic and musical requirements are considerable. The story – remarkable in its time for a contemporary setting and a focus on real-life problems – is so good that the audience demands first-rate theatre. (And how to translate this now period piece into something that still feels vital?)
Traviata also needs at least three accomplished singing actors – none more so than the soprano singing Violetta, who at different points in the score needs to fully command coloratura, dramatic and lyric skills.
In an across-the-board strong evening, Opera Philadelphia had a triumph with their Violetta – soprano Lisette Oropesa. This was her role debut, and it was reasonable to wonder if it was a stretch. Oropesa is a lyric soprano with an upward extension and fine flexibility. No doubt some of the score would suit her – but could she manage the more dramatic sections, especially in the 2,900-seat Academy of Music?
From her first phrase, it was clear that Oropesa’s superb technique, scrupulous preparation, and dramatic credibility would carry the night.
It is possible for a lyric singer to be a great Violetta – among recordings, one I treasure is Bidu Sayão from the Met, who imprinted the role with her distinctive prettiness and pathos. It was Sayão I thought of as I heard how easily Oropesa’s voice carried in the large space, and how elegantly she shaped every phrase, always making the words matter. Throughout, there was telling attention to detail, from the little internal trills in “Sempre libera” that hardly any sopranos today bother with, to the gorgeously tapered phrase endings in “Addio, del passato.” And of course, it helps that Oropesa, like Sayão, is ravishing looking – in her 1950s gowns here (see more on that below), she resembled Pier Angeli.
Oropesa negotiated all of Traviata with distinction, but Act III is her trump card – heart stoppingly beautiful, vocally and dramatically. If Oropesa can find a way to bring some of the morbidezza she has here into her first and second acts, she will be one of the truly great Violettas in memory.
Alek Shrader (Alfredo) and Stephen Powell (Germont) offered strong support, theatrically and vocally. Shrader is most effective in the ardent, propulsive moments of the score (conductor Corrado Rovaris’s very brisk tempos suited him), always alert to rhythm and text. He did some meltingly lovely soft singing in “Parigi, o cara,” but elsewhere was a little short on legato line. (There was a sense of separation in Shrader’s middle and upper registers, suggesting he may not have been in best form.) Powell’s genuine Verdi baritone and authoritative presence make him a natural for this role. There were some too-blunt phrase endings, but more often his singing was a lesson in musicality – the little grace notes in “Di Provenza il mar” one example among many, and for once the cabaletta felt like it had a dramatic (not merely decorative) point.
Maestro Rovaris led an energetic, notably fast reading of the score, and the orchestra played very well. The forward momentum made for a very exciting Act I, and gave the Act III scene I confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo a wonderful urgency. Elsewhere, I wished he would let up on the reins from time to time, especially to let Oropesa and Shrader spin out some of their quieter moments.
The supporting cast was likewise good, including Katherine Pracht (Flora), Rachel Sterrenberg (Annina), and Daniel Mobbs (Baron Douphol). I think it’s now a law that every opera production must have a hunky, shirtless baritone – here, it’s Jarrett Ott, who, as the Marchese d’Obigny, dances sexily with both male and female guests at Flora’s party. Both voice and torso are worthy of admiration.
The loucheness of that party scene is a notable aspect of Paul Curran’s lively production, which resets the action to the mid-1950s. But even those who fear Regie-style reinterpretation needn’t worry – this is, for the most part, a Traviata that finds an elegant middle-distance between tradition and innovation, with only a few details that jarred (a group of supernumeraries moving furniture in Act II briefly made the life-and-death confrontation between Violetta and Germont – one of the opera’s tensest and most intimate moments – look like it was being played in front of an episode of Trading Spaces.)
In all, an extraordinary achievement by Opera Philadelphia, and especially Lisette Oropesa. I think the opening night audience knew it, too – and it cheered my heart that they applauded even more enthusiastically for her exquisite fil di voce singing in “Dite alla giovine” than for the more sure-fire crowd pleasing E flat in “Sempre libera.”
Performances through October 11 at Opera Philadelphia