La Traviata


Virginia Opera’s Salome
Harrison Opera House, February 3, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

Virginia Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, which opened January 30 at the Harrison Opera House, is a steep but riveting descent into madness, concentrated in Salome herself, a taxing role brilliantly sung by soprano Kelly Cae Hogan with superb musicality, striking power and riveting acting. One must ignore, however, director Stephen Lawless’s attempt to make her a coltish innocent. Hogan’s Salome was well aware of her deadly effect on men, not least her lustful stepfather Herod. She used it to her advantage—a skill learned from the cold and calculating example of her mother, Herodias.

John the Baptist—Jochanaan, powerfully sung by Michael Chioldi— was the prisoner of the tetrarch Herod, kept hooded and chained in a dark, rusty cistern from which his powerful voice continued to rail at the sinful Herodias.

Narraboth, the captain of the guard, was in love with Salome; she convinced him to let Jochanaan out of his cell, against Herod’s express command. Samuel Levine sang Narraboth with passion and hopeless longing; having done what she asked, he slashed his wrists and died. Mezzo Courtney Miller was the efficient page who loved him, and huddled in grief over his dying body.

Salome found the prophet terrible but fascinating, as he tried vainly to have her confess her sins and seek Jesus, in a moving aria. When the guards shut him back in his cistern, Salome climbed the rails on either side of the door—and mimed coitus, splayed against his prison. It’s an astonishing scene that graphically conveyed the depths of Salome’s perversity.

Meanwhile Herod, masterfully sung and crisply acted by Alan Woodrow, has been entertaining five Jews (Jeffrey Halili, Ben Werley, Cullen Gandy, Martin Bakari and Darren Kenneth Stokes) and two Nazarenes (followers of Christ, sung by Matthew Scollin and Michael Kuhn). Herod was amused by their arguments and clashes over dogma. Hearing Jochanaan’s exhortations, the Nazarenes proclaimed the Messiah is here; Halili, as the first Jew, exploded in a hissy fit—“No, he’s not!” It was a rare tension reliever in a work of nearly unbearable tension.

Herod induced Salome to dance for him—in a twist on the famous Dance of the Seven Veils, seven dancers in spangly gold burkhas flitted among the arches. Herod stripped their veils off, one by one—until at last only Salome remained, unveiled and in her shift. With eerie calm, she asked for the head of Jochanaan. Herod recoiled—afraid of what may happen—but he has promised her in front of witnesses. The solemn butler stripped off his coat to become the swordsman/executioner; bloodstained, he returned to the stage carrying a silver tray with a domed lid.

Salome ran the gamut of triumphal revenge, warped perversity and horrifying passion as she sang again and again of how she will kiss the prophet’s lips . . . and when she finally lifted the silver lid from the tray, and cradled the prophet’s severed head to her breast, the music soared in crazed beauty. Hogan’s performance was truly extraordinary.

Katharine Goeldner as Herodias didn’t have much to do except look cold and beautiful; her permed gold hair and beautiful gown made her look rather like the countess in The Sound of Music. Ingeborg Bernerth’s costumes had no internal coherence of time or place— desert camouflage for the soldier guards, okay, but Herod’s elegant white suit would have suited King Farouk. Round metal-framed eyeglasses for Jochanaan did nothing for the character. Salome’s ridiculously unflattering gown, upscale but very 50s high school prom, was an unfortunate hindrance; stripped of it, Hogan became a towering force of nature, destroying all in her path.

The set design by Benoit Dugardyn was a challenge. Apparently intended as a ruined contemporary Mideastern palace, all the perspectives were intentionally off— that worked, but the precipitously raked stage didn’t. It’s hard to concentrate on the performance when you’re wondering who’s going to turn an ankle and tumble into the orchestra pit—and Matthew Ferraro’s choreography suffered as a result. Mark McCullough’s lighting design, however, worked beautifully throughout.

Ari Pelto wrung every ounce of musical expression out of a mixed group of players, many from Virginia Symphony. Strauss’s intricate, powerful music was sung so dazzlingly, with such a stellar cast—no one could resist.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Virginia Opera: La Traviata
Harrison Opera House, March 13, 2015
Review by M.D. Ridge

The final production of Virginia Opera’s 40th season, at the Harrison Opera House March 13th, was Verdi’s tragic story of the consumptive courtesan who gives up all for love. Based on The Lady of the Camellias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, La Traviata is one of, if not, the most-performed and beloved operas in the repertoire.

And for good reason. The music is simply spectacular—one soaring, memorable melody after another, delineating a doomed heroine, a passionate lover, a disapproving father, a hypocritical society. It covers all the emotional bases.

To begin with, the shimmering strings of the Overture were reflected by a huge white camellia projected on the scrim, while four ghostly figures dressed in bridal white, with fans, processed slowly, slowly with champagne glasses raised—and then the lights went up on the music of a lively, bustling party in the gilded arches of the elegant, open, set.

The aptly-named Cecilia Violetta López was entrancing throughout, although in the first act, her glittering high notes could be steely and her low notes talky—which may have been due to the weather change. But scene by scene, her voice got richer, more supple, and more and more expressive. By the final act, she was simply sublime.

Rolando Sanz was everything one could ask of an Alfredo—passionate, romantic, heartbroken, striking out in anger, contrite. His highly attractive voice expressed his volatile character’s every emotion with impressive clarity.

Baritone Malcom MacKenzie’s rather woofy voice made Giorgio Germont, Arturo’s father, less impressive. Germont is in some ways the moral center of the story. A self-righteous bourgeois who arrogantly assumes the “fallen woman” will give up his son to save his pure daughter’s marriage chances, Germont comes to understand that the courtesan truly loves his son; filled with respect for her decision, he later comes to her defense when his son angrily insults her. Unfortunately, MacKenzie’s acting stayed on the same note throughout.

Soprano Ashley Kerr was an attentive, sympathetic Annina; mezzo Courtney Miller was a brisk, lively Flora. VO’s Emerging Artists acquitted themselves very well indeed: Andre Chiang’s big baritone made for an excellent Baron Duphol; tenor Cullen Gandy was a happy Gastone. Tall, angular bass Matthew Scollin stood out as Marchese D’Obigny, and bass-baritone Keith Brown was a mindful Dr. Grenville.

The orchestra, overly loud much of the time, was composed of Richmond Symphony players under the rushed baton of Andrew Bisantz. Singers had a rough time keeping up, gasping through their lyrics at times. (It’s not a race to see who can finish first. Singers do have to breathe.) Some of the most beautiful singing was heard clear as a bell when the orchestra was tacit.

The unbilled women’s party costumes were all bustles, frills and flounces, which made the diminutive Violetta resemble a walking bubble-bath in the first act. The men’s costumes fared rather better, although in the opening scene Alfredo’s pants leg got caught in his boot and stayed there—a minor distraction, but a distraction nonetheless.

In her 21st production for Virginia Opera, the always amazing director Lillian Groag conspired effectively with set designer Robert Little and lighting designer Bradley King for a “look” as evocative as the music, from the brilliant—and funny—party scenes to the attractively suggested greenhouse of the second act to Violetta’s stark deathbed. For once, the scrim was a real visual asset as the camellia projections changed, as when profusions of falling petals underscored the story’s tragic arc.


This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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