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Return of the Lost Woman

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
04/20/2013 -  & April 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, 2013
Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata
Maria Alejandres*/Suzanne Vinnik (Violetta), Ivan Magri*/John Bellemer (Alfredo), Giorgio Caoduro*/Joo Won Kang (Giorgio), Lacey Sauter (Flora), Ryan Milstead (Barone), Carla Jablonski (Annina), Matthew Maness (Gastone), Graham Fandrei (Dottore Grenvil), Adam Lau (Marchese)
Florida Grand Opera orchestra and chorus, John Keene (chorus master), Ramon Tebar (conductor)
Bliss Herbert (director), Allen Charles Klein (scenic & costume design), Thomas Hase (lighting design), Rosa Mercedes (choreography)

M. Alejandres & I. Magri (© Gaston de Cardenas)

La traviata will always be among the top five most performed and beloved operas.
It contains some of the world's most well-known and oft-heard music, from movie scores to television commercials; and the story is very solid. The motivations are clear and the events are realistic. In some ways it might even be considered the forerunner to verismo with its intense honesty. Still, just because the material is this fine that does not ensure that it will come off well.
As it did when it premiered, this 2008 production of Florida Grand Opera offers two casts. The popularity of La traviata ensures that as far as the box office is concerned, it is critic proof; at this point I imagine tickets are not so easy to come by.

If you don't know the story by this point, that is surprising but it almost doesn't make any difference. What matters, as it should, are the relationships. In some Verdi operas they are rather complex but not so in Traviata which in addition to the musical grandeur, has situations to which almost everyone seems able to feel connected.

Beautiful sound is one thing. But this is theatre, so simply chirping lovely melodies is not enough. The words and music must mean something. The idea of physical acting in opera is overrated when the voice is sacrificed; the best singers know how to use the voice to do the acting. When an opera is offered as often as La traviata, the audience of a company the size of Florida Grand Opera has a right to expect better than mediocre because there are so many artists who have learned these roles.

With Maria Alejandres we have a Violetta who is world class. The high notes at the end of act one were, as almost always the case, pretty shrill, but the rest was sensational. To my ears, Alejandres has the color of a mezzo. I felt similarly when I heard her as Lucia and as Juliette. But this in no way is a negative observation, quite the opposite. Her darkish tone makes a performance that is emotionally shattering and more beautiful than anyone else I have heard in this role. If she ever records La traviata, we will be very lucky people. Her Alfredo, Ivan Magri, was also way above what one hears today. The spot on tone and elegant phrasing gave sympathy to this very bad of bad boys. I only wish he looked at his lover's face as much as the conductor's. Giorgio Caoduro's Germont is not in the same league as his teammates. The initial barking and unsteadiness improved, but the lack of warmth he showed Violetta betrayed the tenderness of their music; his brief moments in the third and fourth acts feel false without an established bond.

The Violetta of the second cast, Suzanne Vinnik, had some rough going in the first act but got steadily better, though it appears as if she is not ready for such a demanding role. At times she almost seemed to be crooning pop tunes, then at others, she was forcing very hard. Her Alfredo, John Bellemer, while not up to the smooth Italianate style of the opening night's tenor, has significant power, beautiful tone and is a finer actor. But this performance belonged to the Giorgio of Joo Won Kang. Here is a baritone we have been waiting for: tone, legato, ease. If singing opera requires great effort, you wouldn't know it from Kang's performance. And his subtle acting gave his long scene with Violetta the emotion that was missing on opening night. A friend pressed me to choose which of the two casts I would recommend. Each had significant flaws and merits, so it depends on one's own personal priorities.

The small roles, most taken by members of Florida Grand Opera's Young Artists Program, were well drawn with a special nod to the graceful and saucily cheerful Flora of Lacy Sauter. And Graham Fandrei made an especially tender yet strong Grenvil.

This is what many of us affectionately call an old-fashioned production: one that respects the creators' intentions with appropriately lush sets and costumes and a lighting design that is unusually evocative. Ramon Tebar, again, demonstrates his fine command of Italian style, though his rushing of the great third act chorus did not work on opening night. But his sensitivity is never cloying with the music always perfectly reflecting the drama.

Most opera snobs, myself included, often will say, “Oh no! Not another Traviata.” This time we are grateful.

Jeff Haller



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