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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Music Review: `La Traviata’

Opera Festival of New Jersey burst into its 2002 season

on Saturday, June 23, with a production of Verdi’s "La Traviata"

that was remarkable in its immediacy and its freshness. As for immediacy,

the emotional, yet nuanced performance of both orchestra and singers

spoke directly to a responsive audience. As for freshness, the novelty

of updating the action from 1850 to the 1920s invited the additional

jump of considering issues important today.

Depicted with superb acting and singing, the three leading characters

appeared as plausible, three-dimensional individuals. Violetta (soprano

Yali-Marie Williams, making her OFNJ debut) is, at first, a vivacious

and alluring young woman. She becomes a devoted lover and, afterwards,

a distraught person of integrity before succumbing to tuberculosis

in the final scene. Williams’ stellar emotional range runs from introspection

to passion. Since Violetta is rarely absent from the stage, the role

requires enormous stamina. Williams has the necessary power.

Alfredo Germont (tenor Marc Hervieux, making his OFNJ debut), is a

starry-eyed lover at the outset, and becomes a defiant son, as reflected

in both his acting and singing. Giorgio Germont (baritone Christopher

Robertson) playing a demanding patriarchal father, nevertheless, evokes

sympathy when he sings of the difficulties of being a parent. His

was a subtle interpretation. The duets of Violetta with both Alfredo

and with his father were memorable.

The supporting cast provided competent backing. Among those making

OFNJ debuts were Flora, Violetta’s friend (Erin Holland), Annina,

Violetta’s maid (Lauren Curnow). Gaston, Alfredo’s friend (Jeffrey

Picon,) Marchese d’Obigny, and Flora’s lover (Howard Reddy). Holland’s

portrayal of Flora as all-extrovert was outstanding.

The orchestra, directed by Joseph Rescigno, furnished transparent

instrumental support from the moment it played the first icy chords

of the overture. Its well-placed silences contributed to dramatic

effectiveness at critical points in the work. A supple oboe solo enhanced

the poignancy of Violetta’s dying moments.

Verdi’s 1862 opera, based on Alexandre Dumas’ "La Dame aux Camelias,"

tells of the ardent love of Alfredo, for Violetta, a courtesan in

the original, and an actress in the updated version. Violetta, who

suffers from tuberculosis, belongs to a social class well below Alfredo’s.

Giorgio, Alfredo’s father, fearing a scandal that will damage the

reputation of his family, prevails on Violetta to leave his son. Telling

Alfredo that she intends to return to her old life, she hides from

him his father’s role in her stepping out of his life. Eventually,

Alfredo learns that Violetta is desperately ill. He visits her as

she lies dying. The two lovers make plans to leave Paris, but it is

too late for Violetta. She collapses at Alfredo’s feet and dies.

Subplots bring about Violetta’s selling her jewels to help Alfredo,

a scene of gambling and carousing, the arrival of gypsies as well

as matadors, and rivalry between Alfredo and Violetta’s previous lover,

the Baron, leading to their duel. Director Renaud Doucet, in his OFNJ

debut, created an imaginative production that caused the audience,

at times, to laugh out loud. In addition, he created a haunting figure

(Alfredo 60 years later), invisible to the cast, who looked back on

his youth. Wearing a gray overcoat and leaning on a cane, the old

Alfredo appeared frequently during the course of the opera and could

have symbolized death or fate. At the final curtain, the spotlight

fell on him.

As the opera unfolded, it grazed on controversial contemporary issues.

Giorgio’s autocratic fatherhood and his implied sense of male superiority

are now dubious points of view. His sense of entitlement, contrasted

with Violetta’s lack of options as he asks her to abandon his son,

is barely credible today. Her helplessness in the face of Giorgio’s

sense of entitlement seems alien today. Her acquiescence in Giorgio’s

request raises questions. A liberated woman would refuse to abandon

Alfredo. But then, of course, there would be no opera.

Costuming, wigs, and movement successfully transport

the production to the 1920s. Men wear black tie or period sports clothes.

Women have bobbed hair or marcel waves. Their dresses tend to feature

dropped waists and uneven hemlines. The gypsies include Charleston

movements as they kick high and cross hands from one knee to another

during the Act Two gambling scene. Marie Miller and Patricia Hibbert

are the costume stylists. Sue Sittko-Schaefer is responsible for wigs

and makeup. The program gives no credit for movement.

A 1920s mood was sustained in the side lobbies during the two intermissions

with the playing of low fidelity recordings dating from the period

1924-1927 by Josephine Baker, the young Maurice Chevalier, and Mistinguet,

among others. Director Renaud Doucet was responsible for obtaining

them.

The sets of Andre Barbe are a weak aspect of the production. Tower-sized

propeller-blade shapes form the background of an indefinable space

at the opening of the opera. On them are mounted a couple of giant

medallions capable of being illuminated. In Act two the propeller

blades morph into foliage. They reappear in the death scene. The shapes

are too specific and too overwhelming. Much more effective is the

gambling scene background of a simple magenta background behind wrought-iron

grill work that allows the audience to think their own thoughts.

"La Traviata" worked as a team effort. Bringing together a

group of designers and performers, few of whom had worked together

before, the ensemble turned in a noteworthy performance. A co-production

with l’Opera de Montreal, it continues in existence after OFNJ ends.

— Elaine Strauss

La Traviata, Opera Festival of New Jersey, McCarter

Theater, University Place, 609-258-2787. $24 to $82. Performances

continue Friday, June 28, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 30, 2 p.m., Tuesday,

July 2, 7:30 p.m. , Sunday, July 7, 2 p.m., Saturday, July

13, 4 p.m.


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