Pittsburgh Opera’s 78th season opened Saturday night with the first of four performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s perennial La Traviata. First performed in Venice in 1853, the opera today holds its own as probably the most popular and frequently produced lyric drama the world over. There have been periods between then and now when the opera has fallen in and out of favor, depending on the availability of a new and dazzling “star soprano” to make it shine and draw audiences, but there is no denying that for many decades Verdi’s music has been the magnet, regardless of the fame of the cast or the thinness of the plot. It can hardly be Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto that packs in the crowds, as the brief outline of the drama included in our season preview is pretty much all there is to the story.
Set in Paris of the mid-19th century, the tale begins with a party at the home of Violetta Valéry, a popular “courtesan.” Alfredo comes to the party, and sings the first measures of the famous “Brindisi,” or “drinking song,” in which the hostess and her guests soon join. He has loved Violetta from afar, and uses this chance to express his feelings to her. Violetta has felt she would never know true love due to her “occupation,” but Alfredo’s pure soul stirs new and strange feelings in her heart. Violetta abandons “fashionable” society, and lives in love with Alfredo. While he is away, Violetta receives a visit from Alfredo’s father. He pressures her to break up with Alfredo, because her past is a stain on his family’s reputation. Violetta, heart-broken, leaves their home without telling her lover the truth. Alfredo, knowing nothing of his father’s interference, angrily follows her back to Paris. Finding her at another soiree, accompanied by a former patron, the Baron, Alfredo casts aspersions for all to hear.
After a few months, Violetta, now alone with Annina, her faithful servant, is losing the battle with the illness that has gradually consumed her. Alfredo’s father has remorsefully told his son the truth, and he rushes to his lover’s now impoverished home. Alfredo asks for her forgiveness, and they swear eternal love, but Violetta’s time has come, and she breathes her last in Alfredo’s arms as she sings fondly of the times they have shared.
The opera is definitely a soprano “showcase” – so much so that Verdi originally entitled the work Violetta, after the leading character. Frequently that’s what it takes to draw audiences, but the crowd Saturday night, while large, was certainly not the throng the management would have liked to have seen. The amount of talent on the stage and in the orchestra pit made for a night of many musical and dramatic delights, but the production, owned by Boston Lyric Opera, consists of sets that, while effective in varying degrees, are too small for the vast stage of the Benedum. This made for a rather cramped atmosphere in the large ensembles of the first and third acts.
Conductor Christian Capocaccia takes the podium for this production, since Antony Walker is filling an engagement in Italy at present. He is a rather young and pleasant looking man, but made it clear from the opening bars of the overture until the drop of the final curtain that he knows the opera quite well. He conducts in an animated and engaging manner, without the flailing eccentricities of some leaders, and under his baton the orchestra played beautifully throughout, with a few moments that were clever magic that stressed fine details in the third act that the writer has never heard before in any other production of the opera. He received a great deal of applause when he appeared on the stage at the opera’s conclusion, and he deserved every bit of it and more. Chorus master Mark Trawka – and a true “master” he is – had the large and colorful chorus to work with, and together they achieved the usual high degree of excellence this talented and well-drilled group always delivers. They added much to the first and third acts, in which they were so prominently a feature, and in the brief interlude where they were heard but not seen, the remarkable sense of distance and proportion Mr. Trawka always brings out was very much in evidence.
Cody Austin (pictured above) made his Pittsburgh Opera debut in the tenor role of Alfredo Germont, and was a welcome addition to the local stage. He sang with a clear, steady voice of exceptionally pure quality in the first act, but as the evening progressed into the remaining two it became more and more evident that he possesses great power in his singing and exceptional dramatic abilities. He sang with a consistent, increasing attractiveness throughout the three acts, and was very well received by the audience. His biggest opportunity, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti / Il giovanile ardore” (“The youthful ardor of my ebullient spirits”), at the beginning of the second act, was a true highlight of the evening.
Another newcomer was baritone Sebastian Catana, as Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father. He sang the somewhat ungrateful role with a powerful voice of strong quality and a refined sense of shading. He was at his best in the duet with Violetta, and brought fresh life and interest to the role’s best moment, “Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?” (“Who erased the sea, the land of Provence from your heart?”), a scene and aria that can be rather dreary in the wrong hands. He looked the part to perfection, and acted the role with an appropriately subdued nobility.
Soprano Danielle Pastin, a familiar voice and face to Pittsburgh audiences, took the role of Violetta Valéry, the Parisian “courtesan” (or “fallen woman,” whatever that term is supposed to mean to modern audiences), who battles consumption in her pursuit of true love. She sang magnificently in the second and third acts. She’s too much of a true artist to fail in any role she undertakes, but the first act contains the opera’s most famous and florid arias, such as “È strano! … Ah, fors’è lui” (“Ah, perhaps he is the one”) and “Sempre libera” (“Always free”). These she sang with painstaking caution and little of the vivacity ordinarily associated with them, which caused her twice to land on notes that were less than musical in quality. As a whole, she sang and acted the part well, and was costumed becomingly (even though her negligée in the final scene had a train that stretched as far as the eye could see). She received a very generous ovation from the audience.
The opera has many secondary roles that provide limited singing opportunities but are crucial to the ensemble. Leah de Gruyl (Flora Bervoix), Andy Berry (Marquis d’Obigny), Brian Vu (Baron Douphol), Matthew Scollin (Dr. Grenvil), Eric Ferring (Gastone), Claudia Rosenthal (Annina), Brian C. Douherty (Giuseppe), J. Patrick McGill (The Messenger), and Jesse Davis (Flora’s Servant) made for an impressive and effective assemblage.
The opera will be repeated on October 11, 14 and 16. For tickets, performance times, a complete synopsis, cast biographies and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. Be sure to make note of the Benedum’s updated “Prohibited Items” policy. It’s rather a sad commentary on today’s society that people need to be reminded not to bring “selfie sticks” to the opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary admissions.
The “Artistic Team” for La Traviata –
Conductor, Christian Capocaccia; Stage Director/Choreographer, Chas Rader-Shieber; Set Designer, Julia Noulin-Mérat; Costume Designer, Jacob Climer; Lighting Designer, Mike Inwood; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.
Photography: David Bachman