Sumptuous “Traviata” kicks off season with Verdian drama and radiant vocalism

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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;

[Photo by Deborah Gray Mitchell.]

Posted in opera review, Performances

9 Responses to “Sumptuous “Traviata” kicks off season with Verdian drama and radiant vocalism”

  1. Posted Nov 16, 2008 at 10:11 pm by Dave R.

    Sounds like things are getting better at FGO, but it also sounds as if their usual problem of not being able to consistently cast good voices in the top roles continues. So, FGO remains a mixed bag, and at $125 for orchestra seats, I’ll continue to pass.

  2. Posted Nov 17, 2008 at 10:20 am by Wolfgang

    It’s important to remember that this is solely one person’s opinion. Ms. Gutierrez’s reviews in Cincinatti were stellar. As far as paying $125.00 per set, that’s strictly by choice. You may judge for yourself for as little as $10.00.

  3. Posted Nov 17, 2008 at 10:52 am by Dave R.

    Yes, I know, but I don’t like watching opera from the heavens, and I’ve been disappointed by FGO too many times to invest the time and the money. It’s not Ms. Gutierrez I question; it’s FGO’s usual lack of a strong supporting cast. That being said, she can be seen in concert for $40 at UM on January 4th.

  4. Posted Nov 17, 2008 at 12:28 pm by Wolfgang

    I hear you loud and clear and I know what you mean about the heavens, but for a minimum financial risk you can make your own assessment as to how much the company has improved (or not) rather than relying on someone else’s opinion. But I respect where you’re coming from. BTW – Costello is a wonderful singer with an enviable squillo and a gorgeous, evenly produced tone throughout his range. No doubt he had an off first act. And yes, I will be there for her recital at UM.

  5. Posted Nov 17, 2008 at 4:48 pm by Anon4this

    I was at the opening night performance of La Traviata sitting in the forth row (wonderful seats) and while I am not a big fan of Mr. Johnson, I have to agree with him on this one. I have admired Ms. Gutierrez for quite some time now but I had my doubts of her singing this role. IMO, she is a true bel canto soprano. Nobody alive today sings Puritani, Lucia, Sonammbula, etc. like her. She is a Golden Age Bel Canto soprano. La Travita is a role that is not for her size of voice. It requires a full lyric soprano with cut to the voice and flexibility. I had trouble hearing her in the most climatic and dramtic moments of the opera and I would have LOVED for her to make her debut with with Florida Grand Opera in Lakme. There is no doubt that she would have been more successful. In any case, I will continue to be uplifted by the glorious singing and musically of this beautiful, young soprano.

  6. Posted Nov 19, 2008 at 4:56 pm by hishandsomefriend

    Sheesh! FGO didn’t get her for their upcoming Lakme? The sopranos they have aren’t bad at all. But not Eglise? I hope it was becauase she was just not available. She’s quite busy, of course!

  7. Posted Nov 20, 2008 at 12:33 pm by amiche

    I am glad to see an extensive review Miami’s classical scene.

  8. Posted Nov 22, 2008 at 12:40 am by Dave R.

    Gave in and checked out Traviata Friday night. That was about as complete a performance, from pit to chorus to singers, as I’ve seen from FGO in a very long time. Gutierrez’s voice is beautiful; not powerful, but so pure. Heavenly, almost. One of the best performances I’ve seen at FGO, if not the best. The rest of the cast was solid, with the exception of Germont, who was mediocre but not terrible. As for the orchestra, I hardly noticed them, which is a nice change from the way they used to jarringly make me notice them. It was nice to go to FGO and not feeling like I was watching a second-rate company.

    Sat in the second row of the second tier, just to the right. Sightlines were good, sound was fine but I’m amazed that almost the entire second tier is under the overhang.

  9. Posted Nov 27, 2008 at 3:07 pm by maria

    I was there and my seat was very far . I hear evry single notes of eglise gutierrez . You were in the four seat wich its very bad becouse its very clouse with the orchestra . This men lawrence should say something about this terrible conductor and he dident . I think eglise gutierrez its perfect violetta.her sempre libera was out of this world hp,her dite alla giovine also , her amami alfredo and her addio del passato you will not hear in long time like her big actress also , pianissimos , fortes . What else do you want….stephen costello was amezing also , and what he say about the bariton luis ledesma its relly digusting, for me totaly unfear. I think this men have a sikness(I’m tolking about lawrence whatever)

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Sun Nov 16, 2008
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