Sumptuous “Traviata” kicks off season with Verdian drama and radiant vocalism
Florida Grand Opera opened its 68th season Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House on a night with more original elements than within recent memory: a new production of Verdi’s La Traviata, new orchestra, new chorusmaster, and a conductor and cast of principals, all of whom were making their local opera debuts.
Foremost among those singers is Eglise Gutierrez, the Cuban-American soprano who enjoys cult-like status in Miami, and who is making her much-anticipated FGO bow as Violetta, alternating in the role with Ailyn Perez.
This production marks Gutierrez’s second turn at portraying the Paris courtesan who unexpectedly finds true love, only to sacrifice her lover, Alfredo, to maintain his family respectability. The pair is reunited but, alas — as usual in opera — too late, as Violetta dies in his arms.
Gutierrez debuted in the role when this production premiered in Cincinnati this summer and is set to repeat Violetta in Seattle. Clearly, she feels comfortable with the heavier requirements of this lyric role. Yet to date Gutierrez has primarily made her mark in bel canto repertoire, which suits her high, flexible coloratura soprano.
Even with some glorious moments Saturday, it was hard to avoid the feeling that vocally, the role of Violetta still appears to be a stretch for her. Gutierrez’s slender soprano sounded decidedly underpowered in the more dramatic moments, as with the climax of Sempre libera, Violetta’s desperate outburst, “Amami, Alfredo” and the intense peaks of the final scene, all of which require more volume and tonal heft than Gutierrez was able to provide.
That said, such was the soprano’s vocal artistry, coloratura agility and dramatic commitment that it made up the balance. Rarely will one hear a singer soar through the intricate coloratura of Act 1 with such security and pinpoint articulation, or encounter Ah, fors’e lui delivered with such free phrasing and radiant top notes. In Act 2, Gutierrez’s floated Ah! dite alla giovine with a refined, feather-light pianissimo.
Dramatically, Gutierrez was less convincing as the Paris party girl than as the mistaken lover and ennobled tragic figure of later scenes. Violetta’s death was heart-breaking, with Gutierrez’s purity of tone and fragile, other-worldly vocalism the stuff of first-class artistry. Still, for her belated local debut, it seems that Lakme — a role the soprano has enjoyed great success with and an opera that will be heard later this season — would have offered a more suitable vehicle for Gutierrez’s considerable talent.
As Alfredo, Stephen Costello started in low gear in Act 1 with a dry-toned underprojected Brindisi. After intermission, the young tenor sounded like a different, more engaged singer, his lyric voice well displayed in a fine De’ miei bollenti spiriti and an elegantly rendered Parigi, o cara with Gutierrez. Dramatically Costello went from strength to strength, believably enraged at Violetta’s perceived rejection, vehement in his denunciation, and aptly contrite and devastated at their too-late reunion.
The same couldn’t be said for the miscast Luis Ledesma as Germont, whose hoary, unfocused bass-baritone and perennially wayward pitch undermined Gutierrez in Act 2 and provided a drag on the evening.
Florida Grand’s favored production team of Allen Charles Klein and Bliss Hebert have crafted a traditional yet eye-catching production that manages to provide sumptuous visuals without crossing the line to excess. Violetta’s salon offers tasteful elegance, with its three large chandeliers, palms and just enough red and gold splendor to avoid vulgarity. Flora’s salon in Act 2, on the other hand, embraces it, with a profusion of gold and brocade. The final scene of Violetta’s impoverished room is aptly gray and ghostly. Less successful is the set for Alfredo’s country home with its gnarled Universal-horror-pictures branches and green wrought-iron patio furniture that looked like it came from Sears’ garden outlet.
If not an inspirational presence, conductor Aldo Sisillo had a handle on Verdi’s ebb and flow and directed competently, drawing refined string playing in the preludes and final scene.
The most heartening news for local opera fans is the debut by the new FGO orchestra, which is now being handled by a different music contractor. In addition to the most obvious upgrade — a principal horn who can actually play her instrument — the new quality was immediately apparent in responsiveness, tuning, and technical security. The ensemble still lacks sufficient strings and tonal gleam, but the overall playing is a vast improvement over last season.
Director Hebert moved the action fluidly and unobtrusively, with several neat touches like the striking visual tableaux for the confrontation scene, and Violetta and Alfredo circling each other in a wary pas de deux in Act 1. Less happy was having the street masqueraders appear in the shadows of her room in Act 3, with Violetta’s groping towards them corny and ill conceived, and overall blocking of the final scene still seems a work in progress.
In his first assignment as chorus master John Keene elicited terrific singing from the gifted FGO chorus, with particularly fine work in the party scene of Act 1.
Florida Grand Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata plays through Nov. 25 at the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; and Dec. 4 and 6 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Eglise Gutierrez sings the role of Violetta Nov. 21, 23, and Dec. 6 with Ailyn Perez as Violetta Nov. 19, 22, 25 and Dec. 4. $10-$250; 800-741-10101; www.fgo.org.
[Photo by Deborah Gray Mitchell.]
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Sun Nov 16, 2008
at 1:40 pm