“La Traviata” (1853) – or “The Strayed One” – is Verdi’s most intimate opera.
It centers on Violetta, a woman of pleasure; Alfredo, the ardent young suitor who spirits her away from “the life”; and Germont, Alfredo’s father, who later persuades Violetta to renounce his son. It is based on Alexander Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias,” which was popular enough to become “Camille” starring Greta Garbo in the 1930s; years later, it also became the basis for “Pretty Woman,” the Julia Roberts movie, which was retrofitted with a happy ending. None of these other versions have the same mysterious inner light, “that love” (to quote Alfredo) “that is the very breath of the universe, love mysterious and profound, at once the cross of the heart and its delight.”
Opera Carolina’s last “La Traviata” was done five years ago, in a handsome production with some mildly experimental touches. Its main problem was a Violetta who was too pert and bouncy for the part. This new production is altogether more traditional, but it is kept from being stodgy by the momentum of the conducting and three fine singers in the principal roles.
This was not immediately apparent at the matinee. There was – as is so often the case at a first staged performance – a slight chill when the curtains parted; it felt much as when a flower in full bloom doesn’t convey a scent. The singing was better than adequate, the staging clear and succinct, the costumes elegant, the playing in the pit up to Maestro Meena’s and the Charlotte Symphony’s high standards, but it wasn’t incarnated quite yet.
This uneasiness only departed in the second act, when Reginald Smith Jr. came on stage as Germont.
Smith is a bass-baritone whose voice is almost as dark as the late Gottlob Frick’s, and he used it with intelligence and empathy to convey the stern compassion of his character. He also added some heart which had been lacking hitherto, and Elizabeth Caballero’s Violetta, who had previously been very, very good, became something finer in the exchange with him.
It is a strange and moving thing to see a performance come alive, as Caballerro’s Violetta did.
There are Violettas with richer voices than she has – Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko instantly spring to mind – but she uses her resources as a singer with a psychological acuity and an awareness of Violetta’s quicksilver shifts in mood that are hers alone. From the middle of the second act on, Caballero’s was a distinguished performance The death scene in Act 3 was deeply observed and felt; it was one of the most convincing that I’ve seen, and quite broke me up.
Sean Panikkar’s Alfredo was not quite on the same level, though he is a ringing tenor with excellent diction and with a great deal of dash. His performance had a slight sense of keeping up with the music and finding the part which – to be fair – may easily change in the next performance, should he find his footing. Certainly he has the chops, and plenty of presence.
Daidre Tofano as Flora, Violetta’s courtesan friend, was well-drawn, as was John Fortson’s Marquise d’Obigny. Dan Boye’s Baron Duphol was a bit stiff. Kudos to the chorus for nimbly performing the hectic, scintillating music Verdi wrote for them, and to the musicians in the pit, who played this familiar score as if it were new and fresh. This is a performance which does credit to one of the most perfect operas ever written and can be warmly recommended.