The Atlanta opera closes its 39th season, one of its boldest and most far reaching to date, with Verdi’s perennial favorite middle period work, La Traviata. For Tomer Zvulun, it must feel a bit like a victory. Now in his 6th year as Artistic Director for the Atlanta Opera, Mr. Zvulun’s gamble to expand the company’s mainstage core repertoire, as well as the introduction of the Discovery Series, has seemingly reached stable ground. This season offered stagings of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Parker’s Yardbird and Piezolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires. Wrapping up this maverick season with such a slice of standard repertoire may seem like a compromise, but Mr. Zvulun’s set up is, if anything, compelling. This Traviata unravels in a beautiful belle epoque staging, under the supervision of a world famous director, and features the introduction of three young and well-recommended international artists to the stage of the Cobb Energy Center. In theory, this Traviata should serve as the crowning statement of what has been achieved thus far, and the glorious future that is to come. In practice, the opening night performance of April 27th served a more sobering message.
This is the Atlanta Opera’s sixth production of Verdi’s La Traviata, and at the risk of aging ourselves, your friends at newoutpost can claim to have witnessed the last four in the flesh. Comparing it to previous efforts, the current production (a join effort between the Atlanta Opera, Washington National Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, Seattle Opera and Indiana University) ranks as the most beautiful to date. While it can be argued that the conflict in the opera is best understood when the work is presented in the date of the opera’s world premiere (1853), this belle epoque update allows for decadent sets and costumes that are sure to capitalize on lingering Moulin Rouge references, and scenic designer Peter Davison and costume designer Jess Goldstein deserve much credit for keeping the eyes entertained. They also provide stage director Francesca Zambello with a beautiful backdrop to realize the dramatic potential of the piece, though she hardly takes full advantage of this opportunity.
Ms. Zambello, a director of worldwide acclaim, has been one of the most important directors of opera and theater for the past 30 years. Her work hallmarks innovation, and is often controversial. Thus it is a surprise to see her take the helm of this straight-forward production, though she cannot help herself of a dash of conceptual elements here and there. She controversially retrofits the opera into two acts, allowing for the intermission break after Act 2 Scene 1, and stages the famous prelude in a sterile hospital room where the dying Violetta is seen convalescing. The chorus, at times, takes on an inexplicable menacing stance towards their host during the first act, and for the final scena that closes her party, Violetta is transported from her salon back to the hospital scene. This is repeated when Flora’s soiree comes to an end and the action transitions, without pause, into the prelude of what should be the third act. These unnecessary tamperings could have been overlooked had Ms. Zambello managed to retrieve a more cohesive dramatic performance from her principals than what was seen during the opening night presentation. More could have been done to check the leading lady’s cartoonish overacting in the first act, which in turn derailed the establishment of any sincere chemistry with her colleagues. The motivations that should drive the rest of the evening were rendered unconvincing, and the piece seemed abandoned from a dramatic standpoint. The same could not be said of maestro Arthur Fagen, the company’s music director who himself made his Atlanta Opera in La Traviata back in 2005, who fourteen years later gave a committed reading of Verdi’s classic score. His baton has grown stylistically and has developed a greater synergy with the principals as well as the members of the chorus. While at times, he still struggles to keep the large ensembles in check, he deserves credit for keeping the performance on track, all the while dealing with some of the wildcards delivered across the footlights from the stage.
In its casting of the role of Violetta, we can personally ascertain that the Atlanta Opera has always taken great care in finding exponents capable of fulfilling both the daunting vocal requirements of the part as well as projecting a complete dramatic characterization of this legendary heroine in the past three decades. In our lifetime, the benchmark performance remains those given at the Fox Theater in 1998 by the near ideal Brenda Harris, whose budding dramatic soprano and meticulous schooling yielded an assumption that would stand the scrutiny of earlier generations. In 2005, Jan Grissom’s silvery soprano tackled the part in the acoustically unfriendly Civic Center, and managed to project a sensitive and feminine Violetta despite a limited stage presence. Mary Dunleavy took on the mantle in 2013, and benefitted from the acoustical upgrade granted by the company’s move to the Cobb Energy Center. If memory serves us well, she single-handedly lifted the performance from ruin since she lacked a competent tenor that could rise to the occasion. These seasoned artists used their well-honed talents to project their special interpretation of the role with varying degrees of success. With the introduction of soprano Zuzana Markova, the Atlanta Opera may have sadly halted this streak.
A native of Prague, Ms. Markova, who makes her Atlanta Opera as well as American debut in these performances, comes to us by way of a string of impressive engagements in Europe. She is a young artist with a striking stage presence and pronounced features, which she has yet to fully command towards the service of her art. Her voice is a lyric soprano of limited appeal, and she puts it through the paces of Verdi’s score by way of an odd and curious technique. The middle voice lacks a definite core and is activated without proper support, gaining a woofy, bloated quality when pressed to cut past the orchestra. The lower voice most often fails to call attention to itself, and the top register is constricted to the point of swerving off pitch whenever the score calls for suspended legato in the upper tessitura. The effect on solos requiring a wistful mastery of piani and fil di voce (such as “ah fors’e lui,” “addio del passato” just to name a few) was crippling, though she managed to save her Act One scena by delivering the obligatory optional E-flat at the end of “sempre libera”. Elsewhere, she managed to survive the night by way of a patchwork technique that only youth can sustain, and though she managed to make herself heard quite successfully, we can’t honestly report on what the voice actually sounds like. What was palpable throughout the night was her desire to deliver a great portrayal, and perhaps the audience sensed this when they rewarded her with a standing ovation at the end of the performance. Her bio tells us that her next engagements include Bellini’s I Puritani and Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. Wild times.
In contrast, we will remember these performances of Traviata for the work of the male principals, and deserving of top honors was the Alfredo of Mario Chang, also making his Atlanta Opera debut in these performances. A native of Guatemala, Mr. Chang possesses a vibrant tenore di grazia graced by an attractive tone and clear production. His is the type of instrument that signals that a person of higher breeding has entered the room when he opens his mouth, and unlike his counterpart, he has the technical arsenal to interpret his part both vocally and physically. Alfredo may lack the more exuberant pages in the score, but his music is challenging in terms of legato and intonation. These are the most glaring hurdles to be found in the opera’s celebrated duets, which Mr. Chang managed with aplomb. For the dramatic moments, such as the denunciation scene, he took advantage of the histrionic opportunities afforded by the brief scene with gusto. In comparison to the artists that have come before him, he is the Alfredo Atlanta has been waiting for the last 22 years. A similar verdict could be applied to Argentinian baritone, who is also being heard in our city for the first time with these performances as Giorgio Germont. His baritone is essentially a lyric instrument, which initially needed time to warm up. Mr. Veloz does not possess what some would categorize as a “Verdian voice” as it lacks a certain darkness and proper slancio, but he is a smart singer and can modulate his instrument in a convincing way. The highlight of his performance was the famous “Di provenza”, which he delivered over the orchestra with a tone floating on waves of gossamer clarity. The ear could smell il mar and touch il suol.
The lesser roles were beautifully realized by the company’s roster of studio artists, with tenor Justin Stolz (fresh from his feat as Lensky in March’s Eugene Onegin), leading the pack as Gastone. During his brief exchanges with Mr. Chang, we were reminded of Mr. Stolz’s thoroughly professional (if slightly wooden) portrayal of Alfredo for Capital City Opera. Few comprimarios are ever a vocal match for the principal artist, and he put Mr. Chang on notice. Elizabeth Sarian’s Flora was distinguished by a straight forward and well-knit mezzo-soprano that we hope to hear more of in the near future. Soprano Anna Kozlakiewicz succeeded in projecting a caring and dignified Annina despite the limits of her part. Bass-baritone Alan Higgs, an alumnus from the Atlanta Opera Studio Artists and current member of the Ryan Opera Center at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, was a fine and sensitive Dr. Grenvil.
In addition to the two remaining performances of Verdi’s La Traviata, the Atlanta Opera will host a recital by international star mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe on May 18th at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org