Lyric Opera of Virginia
La Traviata
Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011

New Game in Town

It’s not often that one has the opportunity to see the first production of a brand-new opera company. It’s even more rare for that production to be such a musical and dramatic knockout as was Lyric Opera of Virginia’s La Traviata. La Traviata is based on Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux caméllias, based in turn on the life of a famous Parisian courtesan. The name, “la Traviata”, means “the fallen woman” or “the woman who strayed,” a reference to the hypocritical contempt of the polite society of the day for such unfortunate women. Verdi, however, ennobled the character of Violetta, who risks falling in love with Alfredo yet heeds his father’s plea that Alfredo’s innocent sister may be ruined by the scandal of her brother’s relationship with a fallen woman. Heartbroken, Violetta accedes to his request to renounce Alfredo, asking only, “Embrace me like a daughter; then I’ll be strong.” Germont, expecting her to be a gold-digger and manipulator, is stunned to realize that Violetta truly loves his son and has spent all her money to support him. Returning to the life of pleasure that will hasten her death, Alfredo, thinking Violetta no longer loves him, viciously attacks and insults her at Flora’s party. Germont privately scolds his son for treating Violetta so shamefully — in another piece of hypocrisy, not because Germont himself has interfered with their relationship, but because an honorable man should not treat any woman so badly. Abandoned by her friends, Violetta waits for Alfredo’s return and their brief moment of joy before her death. The fallen woman who risks love, and gives it up to help another, is the moral heroine.

The spectacular French soprano Manon Strauss Evrard shone in the title role as the courtesan Violetta, whose love for the young Alfredo is doomed not only by a hypocritical society but by the tuberculosis that will lead to her early death. Strauss Evrard had power to spare and a strong sense of dramatic urgency. In portraying Violetta’s determined gaiety at the Act One party, her brief happiness of her country idyll shadowed by money worries, her gallant renunciation of Arturo, her return to the ruinous life of pleasure, and finally, abandoned and dying, Strauss Evrard commandingly captured the sweep of her character’s desperation and febrile mood swings.

As Alfredo, the supple and passionate voice of Cody Austin enraptured the audience. Offstage, the young, Texas-born tenor may look as if he just shed his high school football uniform, but close your eyes and he sounds Italian! There’s no other way to describe it. He hasn’t the power yet to match Strauss Evrard (who would?) and his acting is a little stiff — but the voice! As his beautifully trained, well-balanced instrument ripens, he’ll be as remarkable as this debut promises.

Baritone Zachary Nelson brought a huge voice and good acting skills to the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s rich, bourgeois father, limning his character’s concern with appearances and initial contempt for the woman who has snared his son. Nelson’s duet with Strauss Evrard was both dramatic and tender; and he made the most of that outstanding baritone aria, Di Provenza. (An interesting note: All three principals — Strauss Evrard, Austin and Nelson — have been resident artists at Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts.)

But the wonderful singing was not limited to the principal roles. Tenor Andrew Seigla, a Richmond native, was engaging and energetic as Gastone. Bass-baritone Christopher Job was a commanding Baron Douphol; he’ll return as Escamillo in LOV’s Carmen. Violetta’s friend Flora was ably sung by mezzo-soprano Ellen PutneyMoore; and one would have like to hear more of bass Erik Kronke’s seemingly bottomless range as the Marchese d’Obigny. As Violetta’s faithful maid Annina, soprano Emily Duncan-Brown was attentive and caring. The smaller roles of Giuseppe (Jake Armstrong), Dr. Grevil (Matthew Curran), a messenger (Zach Rabin) and Flora’s servant (Norfolk State alumnus Pervis Blake) were all sung with enthusiasm and energy.

In fact, the entire production, including the chorus, radiated youthful passion, animation and freshness.

The sensitive, beautifully nuanced baton of conductor Peter Mark, founder and general director of LOV, guided an excellent orchestra that included players from Washington, D.C. and two star students from the Governor’s School for the Arts in a performance that Verdi would have been pleased with, underscoring all the passion and heartbreak of Violetta’s story.

The young stage director, Michael Shell, has a nice sense for both movement and stillness that matches Verdi’s soaring music, especially in the scene at Flora’s party when the spurned Alfredo insults Violetta to the shock of the other guests. Shell also directed the dancers, provided by Todd Rosenlieb, in a gypsy dance with tambourines, highlighted by the colorful, cape-twirling entrance of the toreadors.

Peter Dean Beck’s airy yet substantial scenic design for Florida Grand Opera, with sets provided by Utah Symphony and Opera, provided a background that changed subtly for each scene, as, for instance, in the use of windows — the grand Palladian windows of Violetta’s elegant town house, the airy French doors of the country house where she and Alfredo are so happy, and the shuttered windows of the dismal room where she awaits her death. Adam Greene’s lighting design was attractive and evocative, especially the eerie shadows of the final scene. Wigs, costumes and makeup were all unobtrusively appropriate. The Metropolitan Opera style of curtain calls for principals at the end of an act was very effective — a new company tying into a much older tradition.

Lyric Opera of Virginia might have been thought to be taking a big risk in opening with such a well-known, well-loved opera, because of the danger of its being perceived, and played, as a warhorse. But every part of the production was remarkable — beautifully sung, beautifully conducted, beautifully mounted — and as fresh as yesterday.

—M.D. Ridge

The King and I
Lyric Opera of Virginia
Sandler Center for the Performing Arts
January 6, 2012
Review by M.D. Ridge

Breathes there a soul who does not know the story of Anna Leonowens, the English widow who came to Siam (before it was Thailand) to teach the king’s children?

First came the book, then a film with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. Then the musical, after the great star Gertrude Lawrence snapped up the rights and convinced Rodgers and Hammerstein to put it to music. Mary Martin suggested the young Yul Brynner for the role of the king—and he went on to own the role, for more than four thousand stage performances, and, unforgettably, on film.

When Lyric Opera of Virginia announced The King and I as their second production, there were a lot of unspoken questions. Who’s going to herd all those children? Who’s going to play the king? And most importantly, will they get the iconic “Shall We Dance” scene right?

Well, they nailed it.

Lisa Vroman was a brave, tenacious, loving Anna, possessed of a perfect voice for the role in such songs as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “ Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers,” and expressing exasperation with the King’s autocratic ways in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”

Kevin Gray brought to life the King’s abrupt personality, though his rapid-fire delivery and accent could get in the way of his sung diction. “A Puzzlement” might have benefited from being taken just a tad more slowly.

As Lady Thiang, the king’s principal wife, Aundi Moore had great warmth and a sumptuous voice. Her rich, clear tones made “Something Wonderful” something very wonderful indeed.

Diane Phelan, as the slave girl Tuptim, had a big, not particularly subtle voice. Her secret love, Lun Tha, was competently portrayed by the imposing Nathaniel Hackman. Their duets — “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I have Dreamed” — were full of tenderness and passion.

Ricardo Melendez was a powerful presence as the Kralahome. Ben Branigan was Anna’s son Louis, whose high, piping treble was often inaudible.

It should be noted that at the Sandler, the voices were not miked into deafening volume; it was a treat to hear professional performers who know how to project.

“The March of the Royal Siamese Children” was utterly charming, as the king’s many children, clad in bright colors, entered, knelt and bowed to their father and the new teacher. There were a lot of them— 70 or more! About 20 of the king’s favorites performed every night, but the larger ensemble was different in each venue.

Costume World provided most of the main characters’ costumes. I was struck by the attention to detail: as would have been the proper progress of mourning, Anna arrived in widow’s dark blue; graduated to tailored dove gray; and finally appeared in her resplendent off-the-shoulder ball gown, whose vast hoop skirt billowed and shimmered in “Shall We Dance.” It was a subtle example of how such details can heighten the sense of place and time.

The King’s splendid garments, the wives’ richly subdued attire, and the brilliant costumes for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet were magnificent. (And kudos to Yeda Strasser, Ashley Drake, and the volunteers and parents who sewed together most of the children’s costumes!)

Associate Artistic Director Joseph Walsh conducted a wonderfully supportive orchestra; stage director Greg Ganakis kept the action rocketing along. Yuki Ozeki’s evocative choreography was based on based on Jerome Robbins’ original dances. David Neville’s lighting design was unobtrusive and effective.

Even the scene changers were integrated into the show as brightly costumed members of the palace household, instead of the now-conventional “We’re-wearing-black-so we’re-invisible” ninjas.

Lyric Opera of Virginia triumphs again!

From the other side of the footlights, I’m M.D. Ridge.

This is the text of a review originally broadcast on WHRO FM - 90.3.

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