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Madison Opera: Verdi's "La Traviata"

Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta Valery: Stella Zambalis, soprano
Flora Bervoix: Layna Chianakas, mezzo-soprano
Alfredo Germont: Scott Piper, tenor
Giorgio Germont: Christopher Robertson, baritone
Madison Symphony Orchestra
Madison Opera Chorus
Louis Salemno, conductor


You could live a long time and not encounter a more exciting or moving performance of Verdi's La Traviata than the Madison Opera's production of Sunday afternoon. I was ready to declare the Friday performance a triumph, but the Sunday one surpassed it to a degree that verged on scary.

As I listened, watched and marveled, I thought back to the beginnings of the Madison Opera, founded and patiently strengthened year after year by Arline and Roland Johnson. I thought too of recent productions: Rigoletto, Tosca and Faust, as well as the coming season's scheduled Carmen and The Marriage of Figaro. Grand opera in Madison is a rising arch, beyond question. La Traviata is right up there.

Opera owes no small debt to Giuseppe Verdi, who seems to me the culmination of Italian opera. He has it all: solo music of unsurpassed lyricism, ensemble music of aching beauty, extraordinary orchestrations, stories of genuinely human drama, and theatricality that brings it fully to life on stage.

All these elements are present in La Traviata, an adaptation of The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas the Younger. Violetta Valery, a reigning courtesan in Paris, is ardently loved by the dashing young Alfredo Germont. Though dying of tuberculosis, Violetta falls in love with Alfredo and leaves the party life of Paris behind to be happy with him in the country. Alfredo's father Giorgio Germont shows up and forces Violetta to spurn his son so that his daughter may wed advantageously. Though broken-hearted, Violetta accedes. Smitten and bitter, Alfredo appears at a party and pitilessly shames Violetta. In the finale, Violetta is seen dying. Both Germonts arrive. Giorgio, now understanding the truth about the lovers, seeks her forgivenness for separating them. Alfredo's joy is brief as Violetta dies in his arms.

As Alfredo, tenor Scott Piper displayed a strong, clear voice and was in complete command of the words and diction. Dramatically he was especially convincing in the difficult scene in which he insults Violetta by flinging money in her face. As he develops further, he may want to add greater color to his sound and more shape to longer vocal lines. He has the strength of Pavarotti now; when he adds the sweetness of Domingo to it, he should be on top.

Baritone Christopher Robertson's Giorgio Germont was deeply affecting, especially vocally. He has a wonderful instrument, by turns large, rich, sweet and tender. Perhaps to make up for the fact that the character is not a very sympathetic one, Verdi gives Germont some of the most gorgeous music in the whole opera, extraordinary masterpieces of lyric art. The effect is to humanize the provincial and somewhat stiff-necked elder Germont.

An unavoidable last-minute cast change brought soprano Stella Zambalis to Madison nine days before the first performance. She had not sung the role of Violetta for four years. To judge by the first night, neither fact was much of an obstacle, but the second performance amply showed how much more Zambalis had to give. She has everything operatic: a truly incredible instrument of enormous variety and subtlety, the talent to fully inhabit and realize a credible persona within a complex character and -- this very few people have -- an ability to give emotionally at a level no sentient being could resist. It was an artistic triumph that fully justifies the title of diva.

All of the smaller roles were handled with skill and panache. Lorna Haywood's stage direction showed most strongly in moving complex party crowds around without collisions and in guiding the principals so as to strengthen their dramatic interactions.

Conductor Louis Salemno resolved Friday's intonation and ensemble problems for the Sunday performance, resulting in the kind of lyric support for which he is justifiably renowned. The dramatically raked setting from the Piedmont Opera, though terrifying to see lest an actor slip off it into the pit, worked very well dramatically. William Owen's lighting was subtle but effective in every instance.

The house was nearly full both times. There were many shouts of "Bravo, Brava!" during the performances, and pandemonium and standing ovations rewarded the cast Friday and Sunday. Even the next morning, I'm still very much under the spell of the entire experience. Opera this good will do that for you.

Isthmus, April, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson

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