William Adams, DMA
The operas of Giuseppe Verdi are among the most demanding, vocally, of any in the repertoire. They require strong yet agile voices capable of sustaining demanding tessiture through some of the most dramatic and intense characters seen on the opera stage. Although La Traviata is often considered one of Verdi’s least demanding operas (although, certainly not for Violetta), it is still not to be undertaken lightly. Both Alfredo and Germont require strong, clear voices with great stamina to be sung well. That is in contrast, however, to the role of Violetta, which is one of the most demanding roles in all of opera and arguably Verdi’s most nuanced and dynamic female role. And this from a composer who gave us Lady Macbeth, Gilda, Joan of Arc, and Desdemona.
Vocally, Violetta requires great coloratura, extreme dynamic contrasts, and enough differences in timbre to lead one to conclude Verdi intended the role for at least three different women to be able to be performed well. While many sopranos study Violetta and her arias, and are capable of presenting one of her acts well, only a select, elite few will ever truly conquer the role and present all three acts with equal grace, agility, passion, humor, and gravitas. Verdi demands a singer with an exceptionally versatile instrument and dramatic range as an actor.
Enter Vanessa Vasquez.
The Colombian American singer from Arizona is a 2017 Metropolitan Opera Council winner with an impressive repertoire including Gilda in Rigoletto, Mimì in La bohéme, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and many others. She has been heard throughout the United States including appearances in Philadelphia, Santa Fe, Des Moines, Phoenix, and the Washington National Opera. She recently made her European debut in Austria singing Liù in Turandot.
Ms. Vasquez gifted us with a world-class Violetta. Her coloratura was spectacular, all at once effortless and yet dazzling. Her presence on stage was stylized and graceful, harkening to the greatest traditions of grand opera. In the first act, she embodied Violetta’s lustful passion for pleasure – to live life on her terms – with a swagger that was mirrored in her strong, bright reading of “Sempre libera.” Her timbre and her presence tempered in the second act as Violetta embraces a life of gentility. She stands up to Germont with a pride that can only be informed by her unselfish love of Alfredo. When she makes the crushing decision to leave all of that behind, Ms. Vasquez used Verdi’s intensely emotional scoring to inform yet another change in timbre to communicate the pain and the resignation of the fate that awaits her. As Violetta nears death in the third act, she requires, yet again, a different tone and a different presence to be properly presented. Ms. Vasquez allowed her tone to be breathy at times, hollow and straight in others, to portray the weariness and the weakness of her illness. And yet, her playful banter with Dr. Grenvil, her sincerity with Annina, her desperation to reconnect with Alfredo, and even her momentary strength at the very end, were all presented subtly yet distinctly.
In contrast to Ms. Vasquez’ world-wise, socially adept Violetta, Jonathan Johnson presented a boyish, impulsive, naïve, yet sincere and ultimately honorable Alfredo. His voice is lighter than one might expect to hear in the role of Alfredo and he did have a few moments where his voice seemed a bit strained and even suffered a few minor cracks. However, these minor vocal difficulties were handled with great aplomb and are easily forgiven in light of the strength and depth of his portrayal of Alfredo and the sheer beauty of his voice overall. His bright, lyrical tenor shifted easily between tender expressions of love, exhortations for forgiveness, or outbursts of rage. Mr. Johnson’s physical presence on stage was natural and easy. He expertly portrayed Alfredo’s simpler “country boy” naïveté and contrasted it beautifully against the stern demeanor of his father or the sulking intensity of the Baron. There was an almost musical theater aesthetic to his presence on stage, which should be viewed as an accolade and not a criticism, as this approach helped to highlight this youthful bravado necessary to bring Alfredo to life. Even before reading his bio, one expected to see reference to professional appearances in musical theater. Mr. Johnson’s credits include Puccini, Leoncavallo, Prokofiev, Korngold, and Bernstein but also Sondheim as well as Gilbert and Sullivan. Both Sondheim’s Anthony and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Frederic would understand Alfredo all too well. Mr. Johnson’s dramatic range is impressive.
When Verdi premiered La Traviata in 1853, he intended it to be staged modern day. Opera companies refused. The opera presented a few social dilemmas for the audience: it exposed the hypocrisies of the upper crust (not caring about Violetta but happy to be amused by her), allowing a “fallen woman” or “woman who strayed” (the most conventional translations of “Traviata”) to find redemption through sacrifice, and both of those notions are tied up in Violetta’s perfect embodiment of feminism which was quite radical for the time.
Germont is the personification of these societal mores. In Verdi’s narrative, however, we see perhaps an idealistic recognition of Violetta’s humanity, albeit too late. This makes Germont a challenging character to realize. As he convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo he says he understands the sacrifice she’s making and contends that it simply must be this way. Does he really care or is he just saying whatever it takes to convince her? This is the question at the heart of any portrayal of Germont. Andrew Manea presented a proud, stern, aloof, perhaps even a condescending Germont. He said the words but he showed no real pity for Violetta. This mask cracked in his anger toward Alfredo at Flora’s party and fell away completely when he begged for forgiveness before Violetta died. Mr. Manea’s Germont was well crafted from start to finish. Vocally, Mr. Manea realized Germont with exceptional lyricism and control. His was the only other voice in the production to truly rival Ms. Vasquez in size. He projected easily, even during the challenging dynamic nuances of “Di Provenza.”
Gretchen Bruesehoff rewarded us with a sincere, subtle, and intensely loyal Annina, bringing a light tone to Violetta’s maid. Lawrence Hall is listed as a baritone but his resume would seem to indicate a propensity for singing bass-baritone repertoire. He stalked about the stage as the Baron with a decidedly animalistic presence. Erica Jackson’s Flora was delightfully animated and physical. In another nod to Verdi’s feminism, she was costumed in pants with a coat with long tails which she used expertly to show Flora’s own hedonism. Jason Karn brought a lighthearted zeal to his reading of Gastone. Jacob Cortes as Marquis d’Obigny turned in a well balanced performance with a clear and present instrument and an easy presence on stage. Christian Blackburn offered a poignant reading of Dr. Grenvil, especially in the final moments where he turns away so he doesn’t have to see Violetta’s passing.
As is true with many of Verdi’s operas, La Traviata requires a substantial chorus and orchestra. The 37-member chorus seemed a little crowded on stage and struggled a couple of times to stay in sync with the orchestra. A credit to Chorus Master Scott MacLeod, the chorus was strong, very well prepared, and sang with a rich and vibrant tone. Everyone was fully present and very animated in their roles.
The acoustics in Memorial are not forgiving or very helpful for opera. It requires a very delicate touch to keep such a large orchestra (complete with a full brass section including a cimbasso!) under control and in support of the singers on the stage. There were only a few moments where the orchestra overpowered, otherwise they played with great sensitivity and a full, lush sound. Maestro Joseph Mechavich was very sensitive and responsive to the singers and crafted a warm and lush tone for the orchestra.
The look of the opera was striking. The entirety of the first act was a study in red and black. These colors, especially in combination, evoke elegance and luxury, but also decadence and debauchery. The second act, where Violetta and Alfredo have left this life behind, was presented with all whites and subtle variations from white. The effect was so striking it even elicited a chuckle from the audience. Flora’s party was bathed in purple, another symbol of luxury and excess. The third act was washed out in grays and blacks highlighting the bleakness of Violetta’s final situation. These were broad, bold strokes that gave no quarter, and left little to the imagination about what was happening.
North Carolina Opera’s La Traviata was by all standards a triumph musically and visually. All are to be commended for an outstanding production of this enduring masterpiece.