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A Traditional Traviata Marks an Advance for Opera NJ

R. S. Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center
07/11/2008 -  and July 13, 17, 19 and 26
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Elizabeth Caballero (Violetta Valery), Ariya Sawadivong (Flora), Kemper H. L. Florin (Annina), Michael Fabiano (Alfredo Germont), William Andrew Stuckey (Giorgio Germont), Aaron Sanka (Gastone), Jonathan Stinson (Baron Douphol), Sean Anderson(Marchese d'Obigny), Scott Conner (Dottore Grenvil)
Fernando Raucci (conductor)
John Hoomes (stage director), Richard Seger (scenic designer), Patricia A. Hibbert (costume designer), Barry Steele (lighting designer)

E. Caballero (Violetta), M. Fabiano (Alfredo) (© Jeff Reeder)

Opera New Jersey launched its first season in 2004 with a production of Don Giovanni in a small performing space on the campus of Princeton University. Now in its fifth season, the company - formerly called New Jersey Opera Theater – has moved to the McCarter Theatre Center when it now presents a season of 13 performances of three productions along with along with several concerts of opera scenes and master classes. Opera NJ has come a long way since that first brave but slipshod Don Giovanni. The company is opening its fifth season with a winning production of Verdi's La Traviata in the intimate 373-seat Berlind Theatre. Visually and vocally, Friday evening's premiere marked a big step forward for the Princeton-based opera company.

The traditional production - smartly staged by John Hoomes and attractively designed by Richare Seger - concentrated on the deep emotions in Verdi's opera. A high point came in the gambling scene that ends the second act. Suddenly, as Alfredo denounced Violetta, a good performance became an outstanding one. Michael Fabiano opened up his firm, true tenor with thrilling impact. Elizabeth Caballero conveyed Violetta's heartbreak and despair with an affecting performance.

Caballero reached the heights in the final act. As Alfredo swept the dying woman in his arms, she was no longer merely singing notes or making gestures. She was capturing Violetta's joy and suffering in a voice suffused with death. An affecting actress, Caballero sang strongly from the start, but her pulsing soprano sometimes lacked focus and expressive color. She screamed out the high Cs in “Sempre libera” and did not always manage to refine her voice in the long duet with Alfredo's father. She was at her best when pouring out her voice in “Amami, Alfredo!” But her interpretation gained in intensity and nuance as the performance progressed. She deserved the big ovation she got at the final curtain. So did Fabiano.

A late replacement for another tenor, Fabiano was unable to sing the dress rehearsal because he was in Vail, Colorado singing La Bohème with the Philadelphia Orchestra. From his entrance in the first act, Fabiano was at his vocal and dramatic ease as he fashioned a suave flow of sound in the “Libiamo” and then sang eagerly and expressively in the duet with Violetta. He also sounded impressive as he molded the elegant lines of “Dei miei bollenti spirit,” although at the end of Alfredo’s cabaletta he did not interpolate the high C he had sung in performances of La Traviata at the Academy of Vocal Arts two months ago.

Rounding out the leading roles was William Andrew Stuckey. He commands a big, rough-hewn baritone that he managed to refine in the second verse of Germont's second-act aria. He added a large presence to the performance. The minor roles were capably cast, from Ariya Sawadivong's glamorous Flora Bervoix and Kemper H. L. Florin's touching Annina to Aaron Sanko's firm-toned Gastone, Jonathan Stinson's impressive Baron Douphol and Sean Anderson's assured Marquis D'Obigny.

Fernando Raucci presides over the musical performance with a firm hand. Stage director John Hoomes unfolds the action clearly in Seger's handsome set, a series of arched doorways and windows rearranged from scene to scene. Patricia A. Hibbert's attractive costumes add to the visual appeal of the production.

Robert Baxter



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