Baltimore Opera offers brilliant 'Traviata'


Few operas are so abused as Verdi's "La Traviata." There is its tear-jerking plot -- the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold who sacrifices herself for a higher purpose. Then there are the details that have always made opera a target for satire.

In fact, "Traviata" is a likely candidate as the source of the expression, "it ain't over till the fat lady sings." Violetta, the Parisian courtesan who is the central figure, dies of tuberculosis. No soprano thin enough to pass for a consumptive, however, could negotiate Violetta's death scene, which calls for the singer to begin with a tiny stream of tone that widens to a river.

Badly performed, therefore, "Traviata" can be the source of laughter. Nevertheless, when "Traviata" is sung and played as well, directed with as much purpose and costumed and lit as intelligently as the production the Baltimore Opera Company unveiled Saturday at the Lyric Opera House, it is as moving as a powerfully told saint's life.

This production featured strong performances in the three principal parts. Daniela Longhi (Violetta) is a young, attractive Italian soprano who appears to sing primarily in Europe. But there must be a demand for Violettas with lower registers so creamy, high notes that ring out with such authority and musico-dramatic expressiveness sufficient to cause a significant number of presumably healthy people to sniffle and wipe their eyes.

Don Bernardini, Longhi's Alfredo, did not sing with comparable distinction. But he didn't push his voice beyond its limits (as so many lyric tenors do) and he was affecting enough to make one feel that Violetta's passion was not misplaced. Moreover, he was able to rise to occasions such as Alfredo's jealous denunciation in the gambling scene and the remorseful, distraught final scene which he is reconciled to her.

Mark Delevan, who sang Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, is somewhat hard to talk about. In the performance this listener attended, Delevan was clearly the audience favorite -- and one can see why. This young baritone is both musical and a fine actor. His characterization of the elder Germont's transformation, he passes slowly from hostility to warm sympathy for Violetta, was expertly calibrated. His vocal stature and size made for a powerful paternal presence and his singing was often lovely.

But the elder Germont is almost always sung by a lyric baritone and -- to this listener, at least -- it was strange to hear so large and deep a voice in the role. It may have been Delevan's attempt to keep his powerful instrument within the role's confines that sometimes lent it a covered, almost muffled quality.

Frank Corsaro's staging was mostly intelligent and dignified. He knew how to keep dramatic tension taut and he is good at moving large numbers of actors and making an audience feel that these people have a purpose.

In the 1960s, Corsaro was something of an enfant terrible at the City Opera -- his agit-prop setting of "Carmen" in the Spanish Civil War remains infamous -- but there was only one misstep of directorial self-indulgence in this production. Why Alfredo's friend, Viscount Gastone, needed to be portrayed as a homosexual aggressively on the make -- one who carries with him at all times a tiny and ridiculously coiffured dog -- was a mystery and a distraction.

The production's sets (which were borrowed from the Montreal Opera) by Claude Girard and Bernard Uzan were handsome and were beautifully lit by Donald Edmund Thomas. Chorus master James Harp's preparation of his choir produced fine singing. The playing of the Baltimore Opera Orchestra under conductor Alfredo Silipigni was idiomatic and colorful.

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