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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
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
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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