Opera New Jersey opened its 2008 season with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” distinguished by dramatic power, emotional depth, and musical subtlety. Playing to a full house in McCarter’s 243-seat Berlind Theater, the event was an evening of theatrical completeness that left a residue of philosophical and psychological conundrums to be pursued at leisure afterwards. Director John Hoomes’s sensitivity to the three main characters intersected with Verdi’s liberal politics to highlight an array of ironies and ambivalences imbedded in the social issues of the time.

Violetta Valery, a tubercular prostitute (soprano Elizabeth Caballero), comes from a scorned layer of society; yet her morals are exemplary. Persuaded to give up her lover, Alfredo Germont, in order to protect the name of his family, she consistently pretends she is indifferent to him. She is torn between her genuine love for Alfredo and the promise she has given her lover’s father, Giorgio Germont, to leave Alfredo.

Father Giorgio Germont (baritone William Andrew Stuckey) comes from a respected segment of society and embodies conventional morality. A God-fearing man, he is successful financially and wants to preserve the good reputation of his family. Glimmers of admiration and empathy for Violetta penetrate his self-righteousness. In the end, his respect for Violetta shows through and he displays the virtue of an industrial polluter who reluctantly accepts green goals after all the fish in the river have died.

Alfredo Germont, Giorgio’s son and Violetta’s lover (Michael Fabiano), is unable to detect Violetta’s devotion and her anguish at leaving him. Suffering because of Violetta’s supposed infidelity, he says “A thousand serpents are eating at my heart.” Having been brought up by his conventionally correct father, Alfredo responds to Violetta’s taking up with Baron Douphol (Jonathon Stinson) by becoming jealous; he is unable to dig below the surface and perceive Violetta’s unflagging love.

At the curtain calls, an enthusiastic audience recognized the strong voices of the cast with a deserved ovation. The listeners singled out Elizabeth Caballero (Violetta) with extended applause and shouts. The robustness of her voice was palpable from her initial sounds. Most remarkably, she was able to adapt its power to the tubercular imperatives of fragility and fever, as well as to the lovesick agony of loss and abandonment.

Michael Fabiano (Alfredo) and William Andrew Stuckey (Giorgio) matched Caballero’s vocal prowess in well-balanced duets with her. Their musical interactions showed that they shared with her a strong sense of ensemble as well as a refined ability to interpret character.

Orchestral players, conducted by Fernando Raucci, were able collaborators for the singers, enhancing the stage action by mirroring the drama and emotion of the opera. Particularly memorable were the tympani’s reflections of emotional storms, the harp accompaniment of Alfredo’s off-stage singing in Act One, and a solo violin passage in Act Three. The balance between bowed violins and plucked lower strings at the beginning of Act Three was impeccable. Raucci helped turn up the emotional heat by calling for dramatic instrumental pauses of precisely the right duration at key moments in the opera.

Stage director Hoomes took advantage of instrumental playing by devising action on stage as the overture unfolded, and before any vocal activity was prescribed. Vividly and unscripted, the unwell Violetta collapsed as guests arrived for the party with which the opera opens.

Imaginative use of the small Berlind stage made it appear to expand and contract. As women in ball gowns mingled with men in black tie, it was clear that the large number of guests Violetta had invited to the party with which the opera opens had ample space. When Violetta and Alfredo used the very same stage for their scene later in Act One, the space seemed intimate. When Violetta was on stage alone after the party and drank by herself, she filled the space with her gestures.

The changing tempo of on-stage action lent variety to the choreography of the opera. The high-speed movement of the matadors and gypsy dancers at the party of Flora Bervoix (Ariya Sawadivong) in Act Two was a stimulating change of pace. The dancing of Niall Jean Lessard and Peggy Petteway Mahoney at Flora’s party was a perky interlude.

The red and black costumes at the party added to the intensity. In contrast to the other party-goers, Violetta looked funereal in her all-black ball gown, despite its sequins and the drooping red rose in her hair. Patricia A. Hibbert was the costume designer.

Lighting designer Barry Steele contributed a tour-de-force by having golden light bathe the stage as the dying Violetta inaccurately says, “I’m returning to life,” only to have the light turn grey as she falls to the floor dead. Less successful was the identical magenta illumination of arched windows twice at moments fraught with emotional intensity; I would have preferred a starker color.

Major vocal contributions to a successful performance came from the supporting cast, in particular from the warm-voiced Dr. Grenvil (bass Scott Conner), the authoritative Marquis D’Obigny (baritone Sean Anderson), the dependable maid Annina (soprano Kemper H. L. Florin), and the bustling Flora Bervoix (soprano Ariya Sawadivong).

— Elaine Strauss

La Traviata, Thursday, July 17, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 19, 8 p.m.; and Saturday, July 26, 1 p.m., the Berlind Theater at McCarter, Opera New Jersey. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787, Verdi’s opera. $59 to $65.

Also, Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” Saturday, July 19, 1 p.m.; Friday, July 25, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 27, 2 p.m.

Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” Friday, July 18, 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 20, 2 p.m.; Thursday, July 24, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, July 26, 8 p.m.

Summer Season Scenes Concerts: Monday, July 21, “Tutti e Due,” choruses and duets; and Tuesday, July 22, “Off the Beaten Path,” great opera rarities. $15.

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