A Musical Phoenix in Baltimore City
Baltimore, MD – Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood was buzzing last night with excitement about the return of Grand Opera to our beloved Charm City. Going to an opening night of a new company there are many inherent questions and issues that may befall the production. As I waited, a bit impatiently, in a will-call line that delayed the curtain by at least thirty minutes, I wondered, “Is this going to be the standard for the rest of the night?” There were also tentative murmurs and questions in the lobby before the performance – has Lyric Opera Baltimore really figured out how to bring Grand Opera back?
Those whispers and murmurs from the lobby were answered at once with the gossamer whispers from the strings introducing the prelude conducted by Steven White with supreme musicality. As the curtain rose, it was apparent that this would be a stunning production of the audience favorite, La Traviata.
During the first and third act preludes an ornately painted scrim at the front of the stage created a translucent barrier between the audience and the stage. The audience participated in the drama of Violetta first as voyeurs but as the scrim was lifted all were invited into the intimacy of the story and its characters. Lyric Opera Baltimore made a wise decision to use this production that was borrowed from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, designed by Desmond Heeley, and also shared the same lighting designer, Cindy Limaurao, and stage director, Crystal Manich, with the recent La Traviata production at Pittsburgh Opera. The once bright and luxuriant room in which Violetta entertains her friends in Act I transforms into a sparse and desolate deathbed. To emphasize the transition, the portrait that hangs in the back throughout displays her beauty in the setting of Act I and seems to inadvertently haunt her in Act III.
Elizabeth Futral’s performance as Violetta was captivating from before the first “e strano” to the last. There is an authenticity in her actions and her voice follows with naturalness. It is evident that Futral has “lived with” the character of Violetta Valéry. The fiery passion she displays during the infamous “Sempre libera” turns to loving resignation in the second act duet with Germont. Futral really shone in the third act even as her character weakens with illness. Her “Addio del passato” was absolutely heartbreaking. She manages to take the intricacies of Verdi’s music, like the small change to major in “Addio”, and make it a profound discovery and insight into the character. Similarly, Jason Stearns was an absolute knockout punch as Giorgio Germont.
Stearns immediate command of the stage and role is an uncommon gift that he used to full effect in Act II. Stearns seems aware that as a dramatic baritone much of his power comes from his stillness and stoicism. While the lovers flit about him and later when partygoers drunkenly stumble around, he radiates control. Stearns and Futral milked the intensity out of their lines without crossing over into over-sentimentality. Even though Eric Margiore as Alfredo next to Stearn’s Germont certainly came across as a young man blinded by love and romance he did not display the same control of character. Margiore sang with lyricism and an understanding of the Bel Canto line but was unfortunately often covered by the orchestra, especially by the brass instruments. Likewise, there was some over-singing in the chorus to compete with the orchestra in the fury at the end of the Act II – scene 2 party. Perhaps the BSO players need to get back into the swing of playing with voices again.
However, it was delightful to see so many familiar faces in the Lyric Opera Baltimore chorus again. No doubt they were excited for the return of the company and opening night – which was evident in their revelry scenes. The gypsy (“Noi siamo zingarelle”) and matador (“Di Madride noi siam mattadori”) songs and dances were fun but a bit stilted at times. Yet, their thorough preparation by Maestro James Harp was evident in the complicated and often problematic fast chorus passages.
The Lyric Opera Baltimore pulled it off and answered those questions asked earlier in the lobby. Grand Opera is undeniably back in Baltimore and as a city and arts community we are better off for it. The gorgeous sets, beautiful singing, talented musicians, and stage direction was a reward for all of the hard work it takes behind the scenes to make opera happen. The enthusiasm is still there both on stage and in the audience. This is no longer an opera company taking gratuitous risks to appease some mythical “public” but a company that is relying on its strengths to bring high quality performances to Baltimore. I can think of no better way to rebuild opera’s presence here than to strive for excellence and value in each facet of the company. That is why I join the audience from opening night in saying “bravo” to Lyric Opera Baltimore.
Photography by: Sharon Redmond and Rich Riggins