Friday, June 01, 2018

Review: Love in bloom

Sydney Mancasola
Photo by Ken Howard
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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 the consumptive beauty Violetta laughable rather than tragic.

My, how things have changed. The new production on view at Opera Theatre through June 24th could hardly be more different from that disastrous premiere. Lovely to look at and delightful to hear, it's close to perfection in almost every respect.

Yes, the decision by director Patricia Racette to move the action to the 1930s makes the very dated (and very Italian) attitudes of the men look even more appalling than usual. And the preponderance of floral imagery does seem to be taking the opera's source material (La dame aux camélias by Dumas fils) a bit too literally. But Ms. Racette is a celebrated soprano in her own right who has performed Violetta to critical acclaim often in the past, and her theatrical sense is generally spot on. She creates compelling stage pictures, her pacing is just right, and many of her innovations (Violetta's surreal death scene for example) are real coups de théâtre.

L-R: Geoffrey Agpalo, Joo Won Kang
Photo bb Ken Howard
Better yet, she has a terrific cast to work with.

Soprano Sydney Mancasola looks and sounds beautiful as the tragic courtesan Violetta, with a versatile and powerful voice. As Alfredo, fresh from the sticks and madly in love with Violetta, tenor Geoffrey Agpalo radiates naïveté and sings beautifully. Both have been impressive in smaller roles at Opera Theatre in the past; it's good to see them in leads.

Baritone Joo Won Kang is an imposing Giorgio, Alfredo's scandalized father, and mezzo Briana Hunter commands attention as Violetta's florid friend Flora. Bass Andrew Munn is a sympathetic Doctor Grenvil. Indeed, everyone in the cast is strong, right down to the smallest roles.

Laura Jellinek's sets, with the omnipresent flowers, are a bit much for my taste but there's no denying their impact, and Kaye Voyce's colorful costumes add lots of visual appeal.

Briana Hunter and cast
Photo by Ken Howard
Seán Curran once again demonstrates his great skill as a choreographer with an Act II "masked ball" scene that masterfully mingles dancers with singers in a way the creates the illusion that everyone on stage is doing both.

Conductor Christopher Allen leads the OTSL orchestra in a passionate and committed reading of Verdi's immensely appealing score.

So, yeah, OTSL's La Traviata is something opera fans won't want to miss. But opera newbies should give it serious thought as well. At around two hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions, it's not all that long. Its story is clear and compelling, and as it's sung in English with projected text, it's 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.

There's also the fact that, as I have noted in the past, La Traviata is not without contemporary resonance. The libretto's clash between the hedonistic and creative bohemians of Paris's left bank and the scandalized middle class is not unlike the culture wars that have been raging here in the USA since the 1970s. And its portrayal of the casual cruelty of the morally smug still feels relevant.

Maybe everything old is, in fact, new again.

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