It is a theatrical truth universally acknowledged that when a person swears to friends, a new admirer, the audience and herself that she doesn’t care a thing for love, she’ll be coupled up by the end of the first act.
From the first whispery, haunting chord of the overture, we know how “La Traviata,” Giuseppe Verdi’s perennially popular 1853 opera, is going to end. That’s no mystery either.
What’s intriguing about Violetta in Madison Opera’s 2019 “La Traviata” is how determined she is, how opposite of passive she seems in the face of her fate. As embodied by Cecilia Violetta López, Violetta resolves not to fall in love. When she does, she refuses to be swayed from that love by frowning society. Finally, she rejects death.
“Now I am strong!” Violetta sings in Italian (Madison Opera projects English translations). “See? I am smiling.”
The second and final performance takes place Sunday afternoon at Overture Hall.
Frequently adapted in pop culture, “Traviata” is consistently among the most-produced operas in the world. Madison Opera last presented it in 2011. This year’s season opener showcases some of the opera’s pleasures, among them showstopping arias, flouncy Parisian dresses and guest dancers from Tania Tandias’ flamenco dance troupe.
López, who has sung Violetta many times, tells her Mexican-born parents that operas are like telenovelas, the Latin American soap operas full of high romance and drama. That’s an excellent way to think about this traditionally designed and staged production, directed by Fenlon Lamb in Overture Hall. It lives in big moves and bold colors. Romance is the point.
López is marvelous as the legendary courtesan, confident and self-possessed with a range of emotion from the rousing “Sempre libera” (“Always free”) to ethereal, shimmering highs in one of her dying arias, “Addio, del passato.”
Her performance has a hint of camp in the early scenes. She swoons with a hand against her head and arranges her skirts just so to receive the tenor’s attentions. In Act II, she sinks to her knees, clutching an image of Alfredo and his sister like a prayer book. Nothing undermines her exceptional vocals, which are by turns pristine and agile and clouded slightly with emotion.
Mackenzie Whitney plays Alfredo, Violetta’s arrogant young lover, who moves with her from Paris to a codependent love nest in the country (sets by Peter Dean Beck are expansive, climbing into the flies above the stage). Whitney's efforts are visibly taxing, and in Act II he tends to push some of his notes. But his duets with Violetta, particularly the love duet "Un dì, felice" in Act I, are richly textured and exciting.
Baritone Weston Hurt, as Alfredo’s father Georgio, has wonderful arias in Act II. Hurt performs them with such depth and skill, the disapproving dad nearly becomes a sympathetic character.
The choruses are highlights of “Traviata,” both for the singers, who revel in dismissing Alfredo when he’s been mean to Violetta, and the audience, who starts to sway along with the “Brindisi.” Wisconsin loves a drinking song.
Down in the pit, maestro John DeMain brings out every swirl and tumble of Verdi’s timeless score, pushing Violetta into coloratura fireworks and foretelling each dramatic shift. Opening night had a few staging hiccups, like supertitles that got out of step with the singers in Act I, but nothing, ah, grand enough to disrupt a grand opera.
Madison Opera’s “Traviata” may not offer the thrill of discovery for opera lovers. A person could sum up the plot of this nearly three-hour, two-intermission production in less than a minute. But it’s a pleasure nonetheless to hear some of these spectacular arias live, sung by performers whose determination to bring opera into 2019 feels like its own gift.
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