The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Madison Opera’s outstanding “La Traviata” took you back to many first loves

May 3, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Every so often it is welcome to be reminded of why and how you first fell in love with music —and with a specific form of music, say the piano concerto or the symphony, the string quartet or opera.

In the case of the latter, it would be hard to have a better Remembrance of Things Past than the Madison Opera’s production this past weekend of Giuseppe Verdi’s evergreen opera “La Traviata” (with lead roles Giuseppe Varano as Alfredo and Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta seen below in a photo by James Gill).


“La Traviata” and Puccini’s La Boheme” are dependable crowd-pleasers and make for great first steps into the world of grand opera. The characters and their stories invariably touch us because they are about first loves. The productions are usually engaging and eye-pleasing. And the music keeps moving along and is simply gorgeous, from the orchestral overtures through the arias and duets through the choruses.

I am not alone, I think, in this feeling. What else explains how The Madison Opera, which just named a new general director and which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past season, almost sold out both performances of the perennial favorite.

Now, even a so-so or average production of this reliable work by Verdi (below) can be enjoyable.

But this was decidedly not a so-so or average production.

The sets and costumes (below in a photo by David Bachman  for the Pittsburgh Opera) , made for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and then rented from the Pittsburgh Opera, were sumptuous and used 19th Parisian salon elegance and extravagance, in primary colors of red and blue, to great effect. The stage direction by Garnett Bruce felt natural, not forced.

The pit orchestra, under John DeMain, performed splendidly. DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) is a specialist in opera and you see why when you watch him conduct the singers with his left hand and, at the same time, the orchestra with the baton in his right hand. He has mastered the art of accompanying. So you can understand why, by all accounts, singers relish working with him. Not once did the orchestra drown out the singers and not once were the various voices and counterpoint passages in Verdi’s score obscured.

All you had to do was listen – with such great pleasure.

Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero (below), returning to the Madison Opera, wowed the crowd in her performance of Violetta, the jilted courtesan who dies of double consumption – consumed by true love and consumed by TB.

It is said that opera singers today must better able to act, and not just sing, than was the case in the past. Caballero illustrates that. She thoroughly inhabits a role through both singing and acting, and she held the audience riveted when she crossed her arms in defiance and sang her hallmark aria “Sempre libre” (Always free) in the first act.

In short, Caballero, whose voice I found strong, beautiful and dramatically expressive, fills even the large stage of the Overture Hall without any problem.

The tenor was Italian Giuseppe Varano (below), who was making his American debut. When I heard him on Sunday afternoon, he had a cold and announced it to the audience. Yet he went on with the show. And as Alfredo, you could hear that this is indeed a major voice. It is just too bad that at moments, it didn’t work the way it should because of illness. But when it did work, you heard why Varano can expect a bright future. And like Caballero, his acting as Alfredo proved convincing, not hammish or over-the-top, perhaps even a bit understated.

Could it really be that subtlety will now become a virtue in the larger-than-life world of grand opera? That would be good news, no?

Another rich voice that filled the hall and carried you along with you with it belonged to baritone Donnie Ray Albert (below), who played Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont.

Many other singers also acquitted themselves well, including local talent Allissane Apple as Violetta’s servant Annina and Paul Rowe who sang Baron Douphil (as well as the prophet Elijah in the Mendelssohn oratorio this past weekend).

There were many other enjoyable and instructive aspects to both the production and the opera itself that one could discuss, including the progressive politics of the composer Verdi (below), who saw the sexist double standard that condemned the women who sold themselves but not the men who bought them.

In any case, this Madison Opera production was a complete success as far as the audience was concerned, and almost a complete success as far as the critics were concerned.

But as always, don’t take my word for it. After all, we are all critics.

So here is how others weighed in.

Here is the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

And here is Lindsay Christians’ review from The Capital Times and 77 Square:

Now you be the critic.

What did you think of this production of “La Traviata”?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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