Pittsburgh, PA – It often seems to me that the trouble with Pittsburgh is that one of the most thriving and vibrant arts communities in the Northeast goes largely undetected. In a “City of Champions”, it is critical to number among our Steelers, Panthers and Penguins, the magnificent talents of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet, and if this afternoon’s charming production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata is any testament, the capable and impressive Pittsburgh Opera.
This, Verdi’s eighteenth opera, brings to the stage the most familiar elements of the tragic love story opera-goers have come to adore; from gilded aristocratic philanderers searching for love in a sea of pomp and decadence to the dignified realization of honor and fidelity, and let’s not leave out the persistent nuisance of tuberculosis, the ever romanticized heroine-killer. One of the most highly performed operas since its premiere in 1853 (second now only to Mozart’s The Magic Flute), the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of La Traviata dutifully illuminates the tragic nuance of Verdi’s work. The scenic design by Desmond Heeley was stunning and clearly channeled the feeling of impressionistic 19th century Paris, with a modernity and sense of color reminiscent of Marc Chagall. Heeley’s costumes perfectly complemented his keen sense of space and were a delight to behold. The stage direction, championed by Pittsburgh native Crystal Manich, was clear and precise and neatly held my attention throughout. Under the capable baton of Maestro Antony Walker, now in his sixth season as music director of the Pittsburgh Opera, the opera orchestra held together beautifully and played very well throughout, never overpowering the forces on stage.
As the hypnotically beautiful courtesan Violetta Valéry, Russian soprano Anna Samuil returned to the Pittsburgh Opera (her debut performance was in 2009 as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin) and commanded the stage with a wonderful instrument. While her acting remained a bit monolithic, the demanding role of Violetta seemed a perfect match for Samuil’s voice as she transformed in each of the three acts from a versatile coloratura to spinto and finally lyric as she sings nearly the entire finale from her death bed.
The opening scene, in which we find Violetta hosting a grand party for the society of Paris, was lively and warm and delighted with the popular Brindisi “Libiamo” showcasing the brilliant Pittsburgh Opera Chorus, directed by Mark Trawka. Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano portrayed the role of Alfredo, who makes a toast in the place of the reluctant Baron Douphol, sung by first-year Resident Artist Kyle Oliver. Varano, who acted well and seemed suited to the role, was somewhat meek in vocal stature compared with Samuil and was at times overpowered by the orchestra and chorus. Oliver also seemed somewhat miscast as the jealous Baron Douphol due to his youthful physicality and small stature and was overshadowed by other cast-members such as bass/baritone Stephen Powell who received a well deserved standing ovation for his portrayal of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s distraught father. Ironically, the 1853 premiere at La Fenice in Venice was jeered by the audience due to their lack of acceptance for Fanny Salvini-Donatelli in her portrayal of Violetta as she was too old and not suitable to play a young woman dying of consumption. In the case of the Pittsburgh Opera, I found much of the cast to be a bit too young in appearance and vocal development and came to rely on the weighty anchors provided by Samuil and Powell, though the Resident Artist program is highly commendable and I look forward to hearing these young singers develop in such great company.
In the second act, Powell and Samuil marked the dramatic turn in which we find Violetta overcome by a sense of honor to restore dignity to the Germont family by abandoning her relationship with Alfredo at his father’s request. Powell’s rendition of Pura siccome un angelo (“I have a daughter as pure as an angel”) segued beautifully into the duet Dite alla giovine (“Say to this child of thine”) which roused the audience into cries of admiration. After the scene change, Trawka’s chorus again shone brilliantly as the gypsies and matadors hosted by Violetta’s friend Flora Bervoix, sung very well by Resident Artist Stephanie Lauricella, enclosed by Heeley’s vibrant Parisian salon setting.
The third act finds Violetta on her death bed, accompanied by her maid, Annina, who was very well portrayed by Resident Artist Alexandra Loutsion and complemented Samuil’s often statuesque acting with a warm compassion and sense of duty. Returning to the set of Violetta’s home from the opening act, contrasting dramatic lighting created an almost mystical atmosphere to compliment Violetta’s religious epiphanies and the distant sounds of the Mardi Gras celebration from the streets of Paris outside. Pittsburgh Opera alumnus Liam Moran provided an effective Doctor Grenvil as he tragically reveals that Violetta has but hours to live. Loutsion’s simple reaction to this news yanked at my heart as she initiated drawing the thread of tragedy through the scene as observed by Violetta’s inner circle. By the end, Loutsion, Powell, Varano and Samuil had me wrapped up as Alfredo tries to reconcile with his father and Violetta finally throws herself onto the bed, dying in a fit of ecstasy as she daydreams aloud of the life she and Alfredo might have had.
Over all, the Pittsburgh Opera’s presentation of La Traviata was a fine production and was well deserved of the enthusiastic reaction from the moderate Sunday afternoon audience in which I counted myself. A true exemplification of Pittsburgh’s fertile atmosphere to support the arts, the Pittsburgh Opera has a strong cast of young and emerging artists and has recruited some very exciting voices. I eagerly look forward to the next production, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers opening on November 12.