La Traviata Gets the Big City Treatment from Madison Opera

Photo courtesy of James Gill / Madison Opera

Friday night at the Overture Center, Madison Opera reaffirmed that, as it closes it’s first half-century, it can mount an operatic staple and deliver the goods from top to bottom.

The “top” came in the person of soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta, the courtesan who finds true love, only to, in true operatic fashion, lose it and regain it only to lose her life — all the while singing gloriously. The glamorous coquette was clearly winning the audience’s hearts by the middle of Act I, when an aria that ended with a preciously soft high note swelled and glowed and sank back into a sweet nothing, elicited the first “bravas” of the night.

The Parisian soirees and countryside setting of Act II, and the semi-sepulchral despair of Act III were courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the entire production team of director Garnett Bruce, set and costume designer Desmond Heeley, and lighting designer Christine A. Binder were all making their Madison Opera debuts.

Bruce proved most persuasive in the big party scenes, where the busyness of the chorus of socialites was entertaining enough without overshadowing the principals. If their were moments of momentum loss in the Act 2 confrontations between Violetta and her new lover’s father, Germont (and later between Germont, father and son), the fault lies more with Verdi. La Traviata gave evidence that the forty-year old composer was on the verge of immortality, but hadn’t quite mastered the inevitable dramatic flow that would mark his later masterpieces.

Jan Ross deserves mention as wig and make-up designer, for the Act 3 Violetta looks (but not sounds of course!) as though she is on death’s doorstep. Great teamwork from Ross and Heeley (and a nod to the risk Caballero took in looking so un-glamorous) resulted in about as realistic a denouement as one can encounter in this context.

As for the other singers, Giuseppe Varano also made his local debut as Alfredo, and possesses a strong but flexible tenor that was a good match for the powerful Caballero. Donnie Ray Albert as his father, Germont, Jamie Van Eyck as Flora, and Paul Rowe as Baron Douphol generally fell into the category of producing some memorable moments, without sustaining the level of intensity evident in the two principles.

A critical element was found to be in the good hands and small stick of conductor John DeMain, who was efficient in propelling the big scenes, and lovingly patient in the quiet moments, particularly the prelude to Act III. His orchestra was a constant delight, with one Act I stretch finding the woodwinds and Caballero producing the equivalent of chamber music, so intimate and entwined was the ensemble.

But in the end it was Caballero’s show (who recently made her Metropolitan Opera house debut), as this type of opera must be if it is to have a chance of succeeding. When the final curtain was raised to reveal her alone for the first bow, the house cascaded with cries of “brava,” and the nearly sold-out house came to its feet as one.           

And so Madison Opera’s 50th season began when the Overture Center perils were a growing crescendo, and a triumphant Marriage of Figaro was followed by the news of General Director Allan Naplan’s departure for Minnesota Opera. But on the eve of La Traviata, Kathryn Smith was named to guide the company into its next half-century, and based on her credentials from the Metropolitan Opera and her track record in Tacoma, she seems an exciting choice. It is fitting that La Traviata emerged as a testament to Naplan’s work here: Madison Opera can be counted on to stage operatic staples and deliver a first-rate experience with rising stars and performances that stick in the ear. The encores are up to Ms. Smith.

Photo courtesy of James Gill / Madison Opera

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