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Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013

Florentine Opera stages Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ at the Marcus Center

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Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the world’s most beloved operas, remains the unique crown jewel of his three middle-period transitional works, sharing honors with Il Trovatore and Rigoletto as the composer’s initial breakthrough to greatness. Nevertheless, La Traviata’s more delicate musical framework stands apart from the emblematic guts-and-thunder verissimo style characteristic of Verdi’s major output.

The Florentine Opera Company’s general director, Bill Florescu, envisions their forthcoming production of the masterpiece by saying, “Traviata has a picture-frame quality—a portrait of a great characterization come to life. We have created a traditional but creatively stylized production in which the picture-frame quality is symbolically suggested by enclosing the beautiful sets in a large frame, which surrounds the stage.”  

Verdi composed the work in 1853 while living with his mistress, whom he would eventually marry. Having lost his first wife and daughter at an early age, Verdi seemed to have a special sympathy for women, no doubt influencing his unusually sensitized approach to Traviata. The music tears into the frail, vulnerable soul of a doomed woman grasping for a final love. The subdued introduction to the first act suggests the uncanny stillness of fate. The first act leaps into the famous drinking song only to leave Violetta denying Alfredo’s protestations of love; once alone she ruminates about his sincerity in the famous (and difficult) aria  “Ah, fors' è lui” (“Can it Be He?”).

Once described as “a pearl in champagne,” La Traviata has a more purely grained melodic texture than Verdi’s other middle-period operas. Yet his version of musical champagne evokes a convincing French essence, departing slightly from the full-bodied “vintages” of the composer’s Italian heritage. The music’s more subdued reticence suggests Paris rather than Rome, not surprising since Verdi based the work closely on the famous Alexandre Dumas novel The Lady of the Camellias, a work autobiographically referencing the young Dumas’ affair with a beautiful, consumptive courtesan. 

Nonetheless, while La Traviata is an Italian opera by one of that nation’s most characteristic composers, one feels the subtle contours of the beautiful score’s evocation of the frothy, superficial demimonde elegance of French society. Violetta is introduced in a superficial vein, denying her impending illness, living only for pleasure. She nearly collapses after the drinking song, “Libiamo,” and the subsequent waltz music plays on indifferently. Violetta wants to live and love and drink champagne. The tenterhooks by which she clings to life and love define the simple beauty of one of opera’s most compelling female characterizations.

There are no plots of murderous vengeance, none of the high-spirited melodrama so brilliantly typical of Verdi’s later, arguably greater, works. But the lucidity of the score is its most defining feature in creating the great role. Miraculously, the delicacy of the music is so thoughtfully direct that the listener can absorb the poignant story without understanding a word of the libretto.

Florescu agrees that the second act often brings the audience to tears. Alfredo’s father arrives to confront Violetta about the damage the affair is wreaking on his son’s future reputation. Germont is compassionate, however, sensing Violetta’s sincerity and noble nature in a series of unforgettable mini-duets delicately hinged together. Verdi creates a poignant set of haunting variations comprising a musical continuum reflecting Violetta’s growing realization of the despair at the outcome of her situation.

The sequence remains unparalleled among Verdi’s soprano-baritone duets. The increasing sympathy between two virtuous characters with opposing interests, sadly offset by the inevitability of Violetta’s decision, comprises a great operatic sequence that gently resolves into classic tragedy. There must be a great sacrifice—she must give him up! The music seeps into Violetta’s soul with unobtrusive tenderness, never resorting to melodramatic pyrotechnics. Instead, the music sometimes pauses, quietly reflecting the magnitude of her sacrifice.

Few operatic duets have been so fatalistically moody; it is as if Verdi is standing by and letting the score tell the story.

In the final act, Verdi allows Violetta to speak. The famous reading of the letter brings her final solace. She dies standing, uttering her final phrase that she feels “reborn.” Many feel that her death remains a shock no matter how often one has seen the opera.

Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero will sing Violetta for the Florentine. Her vocal assets have been described as “a thrilling balance of pearly tone [and] exacting technique.” Caballero has sung a variety of famous soprano roles by Giacomo Puccini, Verdi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, including Madame Butterfly at the Staatsoper Opera in Berlin. Tenor Rolando Sanz, having sung a wide variety of contemporary roles at Aspen, will portray Alfredo. Baritone Mark Walters—described as “possessing a magnificently resonant voice and unforced dramatic ability”—sings Germont. Joseph Mechavich, who received much praise for the Florentine’s Milwaukee premiere of Susannah, returns to conduct La Traviata.

The Florentine Opera performs La Traviata Nov. 8 and 10, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, call 414-291-5700 ext. 224 or visit florentineopera.org.