The Atlanta Opera unveiled its production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” on March 2, and newoutpost was present for the second performance on March 5th to report on the proceedings. In opera we always hope for, but do not expect, perfection, and this Traviata was no exception. What we heard was an outstanding triumph coupled with a near disaster. Excited? Lets begin!
This production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” came to Atlanta by way of Opera de Montreal, with beautiful sets designed by Claude Girard & Bernard Uzan. Director Mr. Gately was fortunate to be working with a leading lady of considerable dramatic talents as well as the members of the Atlanta Opera Chorus, who excelled at portraying the decadent, carefree players in the Paris salon scene. In order to bypass the need for a full ballet, a bold choice was made to turn the men of the chorus into dancers for the act two festivities, and this group of amateur toreadors added an air of whimsy and charm to Flora’s party. Mr. Gately’s work, in particular as it relates to the performance of his Violetta, will be discussed in greater detail when we assess Ms. Dunleavy’s performance, but we will spoil by revealing that their collaboration yielded moments of greatness. There were instances, such as the separation between Violetta and Giorgio Germont as well as the reunion of the lovers in act three, were the interaction between the characters seemed disconnected and awkward. More troubling, some of Verdi’s effects were bypassed, most glaring the emotional state of characters as they entered Flora’s infamous party (the tremolo in the strings does not suggest a carefree pace). That said, the totality of director’s vision was effective and moving. A similar impression summed up the musical direction of conductor Joseph Rescigno, whose meticulous baton was always sensitive to the needs of his singers. His tempi at times registered as volatile (sometimes the party grew very sad), but on the whole his was a very dramatic and complete reading of Verdi’s eponymous score.
At the center of this production was soprano Mary Dunleavy, making a triumphant Atlanta Opera debut in the role of Violetta Valery. The possessor of a soprano voice of full lyric proportions, Ms. Dunleavy has the technical means, vocal stamina, dramatic sensibilities and physique du role to make a success out of this part. It is thus no surprise that she has made Verdi’s courtesan into one of her signature roles. Vocally, like many great Violettas before her, the contrasting qualities of the first act presented her with the greatest challenges of the evening. The famous brindisi afforded her the opportunity to display the ease with which she conquered the ensemble, and her “Ah fors’e lui”, showcasing a wistful messa voce and a stunning array of expressively suspended piani, was particularly fine. Still, there were some limitations. Her silvery soprano was two shades too bright for the Verdian palette, and some of the more testing variations in the score (such as the flourishes in her first act duet, and the repeated high C’s in her famous cabaletta), betrayed a casual discomfort with Verdi’s florid writing. As the voice settled into the ear, it was heard at its most convincing when expressing vulnerability, a fortunate proclivity which ensured her success in portraying the heart of this young woman despite some minor technical limitations. Furthermore, her carefully detailed and complete interpretation, composed within the context of a finely drawn architecture, would ensure well-deserved ovations by the opera’s final curtain.
The meeting with Giorgio Germont in the second act was touchingly constructed, the pained and nostalgic attack on the sustained B flat, leading into the key moment of “Ditte alla giovine,” hinted at a decision not just arrived at but made several pages beforehand. A good artist will emote accordingly, but they will still need the help of the audience to convince. In contrast, a great artist will do so despite our resistance, and Ms Dunleavy managed to wrestle product out of these jaded tearducts as she said her goodbyes to Alfredo in the second act. Ten points to Ms. Duleavy. Later on, her behavior towards pere Germont at Flora’s party was restrained yet dutiful, leading to an exquisitely phrased “Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core.” She somehow reserved her best moments for opera’s final act. Again, the devil is in the details, and small things like her wrapping her arm listlessly around Annina’s neck to manage a drink of water did wonders in establishing the seriousness of her disease. Her reading of Germont’s letter was defeated and exhausted, the voice of a woman who had gambled and bitterly lost. The “Addio del passato” was superb, and conductor Joseph Rescigno should be congratulated for including the reprise of the aria. When fate’s final blow came crystal clear upon Alfredo’s return she lashed out, perhaps too vigorously, against all that had transpired. Her death was slightly athletic, but by then the impact of her impersonation had taken its full effect. Her emotional connection to her role was vivid even during the curtain calls, as the tearful and genuinely moved singer appeared before the audience to receive the loudest ovations of the evening. It was all more than well deserved, for in virtually all of the scenes she shared with her leading man, Ms. Dunleavy had been obliged to lift most of the weight.
Boris Rudak promised much upon entering the stage in Act One. The Russian tenor, making his American debut in these performances as Alfredo, is a strikingly handsome young man of short stature and a slight frame. To the cynics, this was already a dire premonition, one which fulfilled itself the moment the dashing tenorino opened his mouth. The list of positive attributes being considerably shorter than his defects, we will list these first. When heard, the singer possessed an attractively dark and warm timbre, which coupled with his winning good looks are likely to assure him a career in singing. Alas, singing is something he should take great care in mastering, because as far as his efforts in this production of “La Traviata” are concerned, he has not yet fully gained control of his instrument in a way that would allow him to fulfill his assignment in an acceptable way. Though his voice was agreeable, it lacked the focused production that may one day permit it to travel past the front rows of any significant auditorium. Instead, it remained very far away from most ears, at times giving the impression of the tenor singing to himself for long stretches of his role. When attempting to produce louder tones, he reverted to a very forward production to the detriment of pitch, and worse for a role like Alfredo: Intonation. His phrasing was uninspired, his acting amateurish, and in terms of approach and presentation his singing registered as bloodless.
(Above: Alfredo (sung by Boris Rudak) holds Violetta (sung by Mary Dunleavy) in his arms as they sing of their love. Photo courtesy of Jeff Roffman.)
These shortcomings robbed the effect of several surefire moments in the opera, for in the famous brindisi and the two duets with Violetta, Alfredo sets up the important opening melodies. As they issued forth from Mr. Rudak’s throat, they made very little impact. To be quite blunt: This was a major problem. Adding insult to injury, his presence further aggravated by the inclusion of the customarily omitted cabaletta “O mio rimorso! Oh infamia,” (indeed!) which the young man managed by way of an alarming effort, capped with an uncomfortable, unwritten shriek on a high C. Suffice it to say, he stretched the patience of many. This calls into question the necessity of importing such talent all the way from mother russia when it yielded so little. Atlanta has heaps of local singers who could have filled the assignment at least equally deficiently (in fact, Mr. Rudak was frequently called out by the comprimarios in the cast, particularly the particularly fine Giuseppe of tenor William Green). The young Russian tenor’s introduction to the American stages can only be summed up as sadly underwhelming.
With the absence of a significant male voice to share Ms. Dunleavy’s spotlight, the field was wide open for baritone Weston Hurt to bathe himself in glory. He did just that. Having suffered for a little more than one act, the audience placed its hopes upon at the entrance of the second male principal in act two, and Mr. Hurt’s accusatory opening utterance (“Madamigella Valery”) did not disappoint. His firm baritone filled the auditorium with little effort, and the assured handling of his instrument gave full confidence to all that someone had finally come to play the game of singing with the star soprano. In terms of color his voice was a trifle light for this repertoire, but per this very nature it had an easy reach towards the top, a requirement of most Verdi baritone parts. Coupled with a technique that rendered him more than sonically serviceable, Mr. Hurt consistently thrilled during his extended duet with Violetta in act two. Dramatically, he could have emoted his cynical remarks to our heroine quite a bit more, but pere Germont can be successfully portrayed as somewhat vapid as long as he is sturdily sung, which is exactly what Mr. Hurt did. He saved his richer tones for his prize aria “Di provenza, il mar, il suol”, which was beautifully sung, and he more than justified the inclusion of his normally omitted cabaletta “No, non udrai rimproveri”. During the short intermission dividing the two scenes of act two, a mother asked her young daughter if she thought Violetta had made the right choice. “Well, I assume she’s going to run off with the father?” she replied. The cries of the people should count for something.
The list of comprimario assignments in “La Traviata” is extensive, and from this group the highlights included the vocally solid and flamboyant Flora of Mezzo Soprano Maria McDaniel, the excellent Marquis d’Obigny of Bass Jason Hardy, and the dashing Baron Douphol of baritone Brent Davis. All, along with the already mentioned William Green, are part of Atlanta’s rich vocal scene, and we hope to hear them in more substantial assignments in future productions.
The Atlanta Opera will conclude its 2012-2013 season this May with performances of Rossini’s brilliant comedy “L’Italiana in Algeri”. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org