Opera the Way It Was Meant to Be

Madison Opera opens its 59th season with a spot-on La Traviata

 

Call me old-fashioned—or if you prefer, an old-school conservative—but when it comes to the way an opera should look, I generally want operas such as Carmen to look the way they did when the creative teams created them. Thus I came away from Friday night’s season-opening performance of La Traviata thoroughly satisfied. With a versatile basic set from Hawaii Opera Theater, general director Kathryn Smith added a director, Fenlon Lamb (making her Madison Opera debut) who was both comfortable and judiciously creative with a traditional look.

But of course, operas are meant to be heard, perhaps even more than be seen, and in the matter of casting, there too did we find our expectations met. When soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez (pictured above) portrayed Carmen at Madison Opera a couple of seasons ago we were excited at once to learn that she would return now as the ill and ill-fated courtesan, Violetta (now there’s a fun coincidence!).

While Lopez navigated the coloratura challenges of “Sempre libera” with confidence, it was her consistently subtle touches that made her performance memorable. Her initial phrases were a touch too soft, perhaps even a mite tentative, but that quickly gave way to an array of vocal gifts. Of course, every soprano who takes on the role has to figure out how to convince us in the final act that she can still sing so beautifully—while she is on the verge of her death throes. Lopez managed the trick nicely, with choosing a note here, a piece of a phrase there with sudden but passing effort, early in the act so that we could easily suspend our disbelief in what was about to unfold.

Lopez had a nice match vocally and chemistry with tenor Mackenzie Whitney. He too has graced the Overture Hall stage before, as Rodolfo in La Boheme; one cannot trust one’s memory to such details as to how much his voice may have matured since that solid performance, but we can re-emphasize the most important point: Whitney does not force the climaxes, nor does he tip-toe around them. In his opening soliloquy in Act II, his Alfredo was especially affable in manner and free vocally, and again, his overall chemistry with Lopez was most convincing.

The other major character is Alfredo’s  pere, Giorgio Germont, sung by Weston Hurt in his Madison Opera debut. The role is a bit thankless next to the love-bird leads—Giorgio must be the “bad guy” despite his best big-picture intentions, but Hurt made the most of his one-on-one scenes with both Lopez and Whitney.

A special bravi must be given to the Madison Opera Chorus and their longtime chorus master, Anthony Cao. They are given substantial duty throughout the opera, and along with vocalism both robust and blended, they demonstrated a viable realism in their interactions—another nod to director Lamb for that.

Last and by no means least, a huge ovation please for John DeMain and members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. From the delicate, shimmering Prelude to Act I, to the famous drinking song which DeMain ensured was bubbly and not subject to any individualistic vocal stunts from the leads, maestro and orchestra were the model of Verdian beauty and spirit. Following the performance a local and highly respected musician remarked upon the fabulous conducting and made the point “but John has done this dozens of times.” To which I replied, “Yes, but the Madison Symphony hasn’t.” DeMain’s work has made it necessary to make this point once more: not only has he built the MSO into a fine-sounding and refined ensemble, but he continues to get exquisite results in what for them is essentially new repertoire.

One last chance to experience this Traviata for yourself, Sunday at 2:30 p.m. It is old-school in the best sense of the term.

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