Fort Worth — The 2015 Fort Worth Opera Festival battled the weather on opening weekend. The event was to open with the bleak chamber opera titled Dog Days didn’t happen because the Scott Theatre was blacked out by the storms. What was the most remarkable aspect of the situation was that a sizable portion of the audience braved raging storms, blinding rain, golf ball-sized hail and the very real threat of tornados to get there. (This writer spent 15 minutes huddled under a bridge of U.S. 287 while possible tornados passed within a mile of the location.)
We are a brave bunch, us opera buffs!
Thus, Giuseppe Verdi’s three-hanky perennial favorite, a lovely La traviata staged at Bass Performance Hall, became the de facto opener. While there were a few formally dressed patrons, all of the glamour and excitement usually generated by the opening night of the opera season was dissipated by starting with Dog Days at the Scott rather than Traviata at Bass.
This would have proven to be a bizarre decision even if everything worked as planned. As we learned later when Dog Days finally took to the stage, an odder season opener would be hard to imagine. (Dog Days will have a separate review).
In an era when standard operas are set in men’s bathrooms or on the moon, the Fort Worth Opera presented a gorgeously traditional Traviata—much to everyone’s relief. It is a dramatically involving production: mostly well sung and sensitively conducted.
The opulent sets and bustled costumes, designed for the Chicago Lyric Opera by Desmond Heeley, are reminiscent of misty 19th-century romantic landscapes and set the mood perfectly. Although the set depends on old-fashioned painted drops, the creative lighting by Chad R. Jung brought them vividly into three-dimensional life. The stage picture was reminiscent of a fantasy landscape viewed in a peep box. There was appreciative applause on opening night as the first act curtain opened on a vivid and frozen tableau that sprang to life.
No matter how beautiful the setting, Traviata is a singer’s opera and its success or failure depends on the casting of the three leading performers. All three roles require equal amounts of vocal fireworks and acting abilities to make the tragic events real.
You have to believe that Violetta is dying of consumption to understand why snatching this unanticipated scrap of happiness away from her is so cruel. Equally important is to see Alfredo’s ardent and unquenchable love for her exuded with a schoolboy’s innocence. While we can understand his father’s priggish bluster when he arrives, his stubbornness in light of the facts ignites what follows. It is the inexorable collision of these three very human elements—we all have them—that creates such a heartrending calamity.
As Violetta, the rail-thin Rachelle Durkin looks a little peaked from the start, which she hides with a forced gaiety. It has been said that this role really requires a set of different sopranos and that few singers can rise to the challenge. Durkin did a decent job during the duration, but she achieved the authentic anguish of “what might have been” in only the final denouement.
Vocally, she was weakest in the first act, leaning towards shrill. She negotiated all of the complex coloratura work. However, her high “c” notes were strained, and sung wide open, but she managed to hurl an impressive interpolated E flat at the end.
The music in other three acts fits her voice much better. Her sound rounded out and added depth along with the pathos. By the time we got to the last act, she delivered one of the best performances in memory with a completely believable death scene.
Nicholas Pallesen is magnificent as Germont. He has a rich baritone voice that is remarkably free and natural from top to bottom. His portrayal is as flawless as his singing.
For once, Germont is not played as an old man. If you think about it, Alfredo is in his 20’s so his father would be in his 40’s or 50’s. However, in Pallesen’s able hands, this is annulled by his priggish pomposity.
Pallesen’s Germont has all the warmth of a stone statue of himself. His reactions to discovering that things are not as he supposed is little more than a raised eyebrow. However, in one chilling moment, Alfredo’s childish anger releases the red-hot fury that seethes underneath; barely contained. In that moment, Pallesen’s Germont brings his walking stick down with the earth-shaking force of Wotan’s staff. This father is truly frightening when crossed.
As Alfredo, Patrick O’Halloran disappoints on all counts. There is a real tenor voice in there somewhere, but his singing is uneven, with some excellent notes scattered among others that range from unfocused to forced. As an actor, he is one-dimensional and stiff. It makes you wonder what Violetta sees in him.
Oddly enough, O’Halloran is at his best in the boisterous cabaletta to his second act aria, which is almost always cut. Go figure.
All of the secondary characters do a fine job as well, showing off the level of singers that the FWO attracts. Matt Moeller plays the Baron, Violetta’s patron, with remarkable restraint until Alfredo’s actions became inexcusable. Clara Nieman is a delightfully ditzy Flora, always testing her long-suffering Marquis, played with resignation by Wesley Gentle. Brian Wallin turned Gastone into a rascally scamp and Steven Clark imbues Dr. Grenvil with a comforting bedside manner.
As Violetta’s servant, Maren Weinberger gives this usually bland character some sparkle along with her devotion. She is especially charming on both occasions when her excitement about a possible a return to their glamorous life in Paris, is quickly dashed.
The chorus is excellent, singing with precision and spirit while creating a group of individuals.
Stage director David Gately can take credit for this, but it wouldn’t work as well without the exceptional talents displayed by the chorus members.
But, while he mostly has some hits, there are also some misses. Violetta’s party (act one) is a rowdy drunken affair, which is highly unlikely. She is, after all, the courtesan of the Baron. As such, she is at the pinnacle of Paris society and only maintains her tenuous position in society by being the picture of propriety.
This approach works much better for Flora’s party in Act Three. Try as she may, Flora cannot ever achieve Violetta’s level of quiet elegance, so her events are more likely to get out of hand. And they do.
One odd thing: When Alfredo, in his fury, throws Violetta on to a table, no one goes to attend to her. Why? Later, when she faints, some gentlemen help her up and bring a chair. But earlier, she remains tossed on the table wihout any assistance or even curiosity about to her condition. Strange.
Putting Violetta’s deathbed in her living room is a nice touch. Since she is fallen on hard times, it makes sense for her to close off the house and just heat one room. She seems shrunken in the large space.
Choreographer Kyle Lang has created a marvelous ballet for Flora’s party. Keeping the basics from the score—gypsy fortunetellers and a story about a matador’s romance—Lang’s ballet is a unique take. We usually suffer through this ballet as we wait for the opera to continue. Not so here. Lang’s clever chorographical creation is the best in memory, and worthy of an encore.
Joe Illick is a fine conductor with an exceptional feel for romantic opera. Some of his fast tempi were too fast on Saturday, giving such passages more of a Rossini feel. However, his coordination with the stage was always excellent, right on top of the text. In one noticeable occasion when things got out of sync, it only took him less than a moment to bring everything back into alignment.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra did a fine job, delivering many beautiful passages. The first violin section brilliantly tossed off the famous ascending scale at the end of act one and the strings played the overture to act one and three with remarkable intonation.
The orchestral personnel in the program is out of date, listing long-gone players, so it is risky to call out individual performances. However, mention must be made of the gorgeous clarinet solo in the last act. Such playing is a hallmark of the orchestra so it is not much of a stretch to give credit to Ana Victoria Luperi.
Traviata is an opera that depends on a lot going right for success. On opening night, almost everything did go right and the Fort Worth Opera should be pleased with the result. Many in the audience were daubing their eyes on the way out.
Moment of Geek: It is obviously a matter of budget that the off-stage banda was played in the orchestra pit, as is the rule in previous FWO productions. Major companies, however, never do this and the FWO will have to start playing the scores as written to join their ranks.
This was particularly vexing in the last act. The off-stage chorus was indeed off stage, but the accompaniment was rudely amplified to many times their level. It was an anomaly—an ugly musical moment in what is mostly a superbly performed production. Most likely, this was an error in sound balancing and will not occur in the future.