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La Traviata — Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music

Traviata -- interior 2Lisette Oropesa in the Opera Philadelphia production of “La Traviata” is nothing less than an operatic ideal.

As lithe as she is beautiful, Oropesa sails across the Academy of Music stage with grace, poise, and style that recalls the young Elizabeth Taylor or Jacqueline Kennedy (who she resembles in one of her second act costumes). Her Violetta is perfectly as home at the party her friend, Flora, is throwing. She exudes her first-act credo and looks, behaves, and best of all, moves as if she will be eternally joyful and eternally free.

This spirit is especially important as “Traviata” director, Paul Curran, uses part of Giuseppe Verdi’s gorgeous overture to show Violetta, sitting quietly on a couch, stage right, while a doctor examines her and reaffirms, in clear mime, that Violetta is in the last stages of her life.

From the way Oropesa plays it, it’s a life well lived. Her Violetta communes gaily and un-self consciously with guests at Flora’s. She dances divinely and naturally, with none of the clunky or halting movements associated with opera divas. She is comfortable with flirtation and looks sophisticated and worldly when addressing the advances of men, especially the insistent Alfredo Germont, who has loved Violetta from a distance for a year and now wants to express his desire.

Oropesa’s Violetta laughs off Alfredo’s pleas for attention with experienced abandon, never being mean but always being clear she is not interested in a partner and less interested in Alfredo.

The glory of Oropesa’s performance is how smooth and unforced it is. The soprano is as gifted an actress as she is a singer. Everything she does is performed with exquisite elegance and artlessness. For once in an opera, you feel as if you’re watching someone in the midst of living her life and not just prancing around waiting for the next aria.

Of course, when Oropesa sings, you are completely transported to a higher plane. The voice is clear and effortless and always finds the right volume, the right move, the right emphasis while staying faithful to Verdi and avoiding embellishment.

Everything Oropesa does on the Academy stage is natural and in keeping with Violetta’s situation of the moment. The actress crafts a complete person, a Violetta who can be the carefree courtesan, one who looks content in country calmness, one who responds to the words of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, with honest disdain and pathos, and one who can express the brio, ease, common sense, sacrifice, sadness, and peaceful end of a remarkable woman.

Remarkable because Oropesa makes her so by conveying the depth and range of Violetta, musically and as theatrically. You see no signs of artifice or excess. Oropesa ingenuously does all that is demanded of a Violetta, more than most because she sings choruses and a brisk cabaletta that are generally cut from productions of “La Traviata.”

Oropesa omits nothing in building her character. The joyous, confident Violetta of Flora’s party is just as relaxed and content as the doyenne of a country home that offers reading, tennis, and time with Alfredo in lieu of a social whirl at casinos and fancy balls. The carefree courtesan can show great compassion and sentiment as you see in scenes with both Germonts, scenes in which Oropesa’s Violetta wins your respect as she breaks your heart. The bravado of Violetta’s return to high life and the scene where she succumbs to the illness foreshadowed by Curran’s opening are handled with equal brilliance.

Oropesa proves there exists among classic singers women of beauty and poise who move naturally, sing divinely, act as if they’re living their roles, and look like someone who would trigger romantic feelings. She, and this performance, of Violetta, should be the standard by which divas are given parts. And tenors. Oropesa confirms that it is possible to find a soprano who is the complete package. Rivals should take note. They are bound to look weak and seem wanting in her wake.

Oropesa’s brilliance caps the luster of Curran’s wonderfully conceived “Traviata.” Curran is a director who can present a big sweeping scene and include small nuances, such as the doctor’s stare at Violetta as he is ascending steps to leave Flora’s party, and bold coups, such as the kiss Alfredo bestows on Violetta, a kiss so powerful, it turns her head and converts her from the dismissive, assured woman of the world enjoying independence while protected by a loyal benefactor, to a faithful lover willing to give up her social milieu and its constant merriment for a less dramatic life with one man.

It is to the credit of Curran, Oropesa, and Alek Shrader as Alfredo, that this single passionate kiss influences the Opera Philadelphia audience as much as it does Violetta. In one impulsive stroke, you believe Violetta senses the authenticity of Alfredo’s love and is ready to give up all she has just lauded in “Sempre libera” to be his paramour.

This is remarkable in that one of the problems of “La Traviata” is showing how the Alfredo that Violetta so jauntily casts aside comes back so soon to win her undivided favor. Curran solves this neatly, while Oropesa and Shrader make his idea work credibly.

NealBoxThe kiss scene not only smacks of gutsiness, it shows the acting ability of Shrader. Unlike Oropesa, he is not on the surface attractive of prepossessing. Not fat, he verges towards the heavy side, his hairline is receding, his posture is ordinary, and through far from homely, he has no outstanding features, nothing that would be handsome or dashing enough to attract Violetta or win the approval of the audience if she got her.

Shrader manages all by conveying ardor and earnestness. He visibly broods and aches as he watches Violetta at the party. He is careful not to leer or show lust. He is more like a puppy dog or a child waiting for attention and wondering what he might do to make his case mean something to the heedless Violetta. You begin to think this Alfredo is too passive to carry the day with Violetta. Then comes the kiss, and….

Shrader holds the hurt look throughout the production. He is an Alfredo who engenders much sympathy. Buffeted between Violetta and a domineering, self-righteous father, Shrader’s Alfredo is always beset with something to make him melancholy. Through his ordeals, relieved only in the three months Violetta lives with him in the country, Shrader maintains the look of determination and of fidelity to Violetta, This also bring the audience to his side. The sad sack appearance and plaintive expressions.

Also, Shrader sings well and gives vocal context to his arias as Alfredo. You hear his ardor. You hear his pain.

Violetta also have a potent adversary in the stately aristocratic Giorgio Germont, as played in a heartfelt performance by Stephen Powell.

Powell makes the audience’s life as difficult as he makes Violetta’s. While the baritone has to adhere to Francesco Maria Piave’s script and be rigid, Puritanical, and demanding, Powell goes about Giorgio’s business with diplomacy, He doesn’t cite the conventions and lean on the moral authority he is certain his position gives him. He approaches Violetta with reason.

Yes, that still means he is asking her to relinquish her happiness, and Alfredo’s, in favor of his daughter’s, but you tell Powell’s Giorgio has been bred and lives in a way that he can see no alternative course. As much as he sees superior traits in Violetta, she is a woman cohabitating out of wedlock, a scandal that affects his family as long as Violetta and Alfredo’s relationship bars his daughter’s fiancé from following through on their engagement and scheduling a wedding.

Germont sees his case as totally logical. Propriety trumps love and what he would consider illicit happiness in his world. To Germont, Violetta could have the credentials and achievements of Marie Curie, and he would continue to object to her liaison with his son and insist that would be ended.

Powell and Curran are cagey in giving this “La Traviata” a Giorgio who can evoke sympathy even as he is standing on a high ground we in the audience, in favor of Violetta, don’t accept.

It adds to the drama to have a Giorgio who is a worried and proactive father rather than one who is an all-out meddler, spoilsport, and villain. It better allows the conflict and increase the suspense as Violetta goes through her series of reactions of Germont, whom she has not met previously. (She barely knows Alfredo when she agrees to abscond to the country with him.)

Piave has been clever in besetting with Violetta with several problems at the time Giorgio visits. Among those dilemmas is Alfredo finding out exactly how his and Violetta’s country life is being supported. Curran assigns importance to Piave’s script and its details, so you see Oropesa showing the pressure of being slightly overwhelmed. Everything she hears about Alfredo and his father following a trip she makes to Paris complicates matters further. Oropesa shows these considerations and the weight they place on Violetta to make a judicious decision, one that takes her precarious health into account. Because Curran has firmly and continually planted the idea that Violetta’s illness must be considered seriously, there is sad, even skewed, but plausible logic in Violetta factoring the reality that she will not live long into any equation about what she should do next in regard to Alfredo, his family, and her peace.

You see, Curran’s “La Traviata” is not only rich in marvelous lead performances — I’ve neglected to say thus far that Powell is a magnificent singer who gives Giorgio’s sentiments extra gravitas by the richness by which he expresses them as a character, and as an actor — but is marvelous in the way Curran uses all of its contexts to play the depth inherent in Verdi and Piave’s opera. Curran’s production is the rare opera offering in which theater and music blend seamlessly. The story of “La Traviata” has been given extra status with Verdi’s magnificent score, and we are grateful to be able to revel in an experience that so deftly bridges the disciplines of theater and classical music performance.

Neither is given precedence. Curran gives you a “La Traviata” that show the excellence of all of its elements. Maestro Corrado Rovaris and the Opera Philadelphia orchestra play Verdi’s score beautifully, but for this production, they are accompanying a theatrical treasure that serves as an encouraging example of how opera and the theater can blend.

Curran’s care extends to the set and lighting designs and even to the way the sound is managed. It is almost like an act of instrumental ventriloquism when Flora’s party, musicians and all, move into an upstage right drawing room, and Rovaris mutes his orchestra, so the impression is a quieter, muffled sound is coming from the room where Flora’s guests are dining. The volume and placement of sound will affect other sequences of this “La Traviata,” all adding to the delight and the respect for Curran and Rovaris’s artistry.

Flora’s parlor, as designed by Gary McCann is a grand affair that recalls descriptions by Balzac and Flaubert of France’s Second Empire, just beginning as “La Traviata” makes its debut in 1853 (even though this “La Traviata” is set circa 1961, given the Jacqueline Kennedy influence in some of Violetta’s wardrobe). Gold accents make the large room glitter. An elegant stairway, also glistening in gold, dominates upstage left, something Curran doesn’t forget as he uses that staircase to show characters, from Alfredo to Violetta’s doctor, surveying scenes from it.

For the country home Violetta and Alfredo share, McCann has designed a collection of carved wall reliefs placed precariously on top of and adjacent to one another. He uses the same motif for Violetta’s bed chamber during the death scene. McCann is also the costume designer, and his eye is exquisite. He can clothes the chorus so each member looks stylish, as a French socialite would, even as Curran has them do the macarena on that glorious staircase. The gown McCann gives Oropesa is a gorgeous sapphire blue with violet overtones in some of Paul Hackenmueller’s excellent, evocative lighting. It is the loveliest bit of couture in the room, and Oropesa wears it with bravado.

Traviata -- interor 3Katherine Pracht gets the special treat of donning the witty outfits Flora wears. Whether you think of 1853 or 1961, Flora is the George Sand of her set. She doesn’t dress, she costumes, and fancifully. We first see Flora in a pants suit that fits the elegance of the other women’s gowns and the men’s formal wear. In the third act, she wears red in a way that makes it look as if her outfit was influenced by Noel Coward in a lounging jacket.

McCann’s sets and costume all fit into the grand of Curran’s concept, one that allows for excess and majesty but which can also be intimate and contemplative. The taste, panache, and intelligence with which all was done enhances the brilliance of Oropesa, Powell, and Shrader in bringing this “La Traviata” to such vibrant yet affecting life.

I’ve mentioned how merry Pracht looks in Flora’s costumes. I should add Pracht is a wonderful actress who, like Oropesa, moves naturally and seems to be living Flora’s existence, as opposed to just acting it. Flora is the hostess with the mostess, and Pracht plays that part of her character to the hilt while also being able to have quiet tete-a-tetes with Violetta that indicate a genuine friendship.

In keeping with Curran’s production, Pracht is also an excellent singer. Fine vocal and acting performances will also be given by Jarrett Ott, as a lively gambler who doesn’t mind betting his shirt, Andrew Bogard as Violetta’s doctor, Roy Hage, and Daniel Mobbs.

Rachel Sterrenberg, who impressed during her days at Curtis, especially in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” continues to combine fine acting with beautiful singing as Annina, Violetta’s country attendant.

Sterrenberg’s Annina is not simply a functionary. She comes across as a friend of Violetta’s who has real concern for her and who will take steps to keep her from harm, including self-destruction, or from sabotaging her contented life with Alfredo.

Sterrenberg looks upset when she tells Alfredo that Violetta has gone to Paris and appears even more stricken as she hands Alfredo Violetta’s letter saying she is leaving him and going back to Parisian high life on the arms of Mobbs’s Baron Douphol.

Everything meshes felicitously in Curran’s production. I have two cavils, one about the men hoisting Alfredo off the floor and rotating him in midair, another about a flashy but unnecessary use of a telephone, perhaps to reinforce the period in which Curran sets Verdi’s opera, but they border on the inconsequential considering how wonderfully and masterfully this “La Traviata” was on every musical and theatrical level, starting with Verdi’s sumptuous score, moving on to Curran’s intelligent and moving concept, and featuring the exquisiteness of Lisette Oropesa in her Opera Philadelphia debut. May it be the first of many!

Paul Curran’s production of “La Traviata” originated at the Bucharest National Opera House with Miss Oropesa. Alas, Opera Philadelphia productions have only five performances. Luckily, this one has been recorded, and while it was not optioned for television broadcast, it can be seen by a larger/additional audience at an Opera on the Mall program set for 7 p.m. Friday, October 16 on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall. Attendees are advised to arrive at the Mall at 5:30. Entertainment begins at 6 p.m. with recorded backstage views and interviews conducted by retired WHYY-TV personality Ed Cunningham. Opera on the Mall is free but requires registration. Please visit www.operaphila.org for more details. And who knows? If the quality of the recording is of the right caliber, perhaps a wise TV station will find the underwriting or the sponsorship or air it. At least this superb production will be preserved for posterity.

“La Traviata,” produced by Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, October 11, at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or by visiting www.operaphila.org.

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