The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Excellent singing, acting, orchestral playing, sets and costumes combined to make Verdi’s “La Traviata” one of Madison Opera’s best ever productions | November 6, 2019

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By Jacob Stockinger

The experienced Opera Guy for this blog – Larry Wells – took in last weekend’s production by the Madison Opera of Verdi’s “La Traviata” and filed the following review. Performance photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

During the first few moments of the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — on Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall — I had a feeling that this would be a special performance. Members of the Madison  Symphony Orchestra sounded full and alive and attentive to artistic director and conductor John DeMain.

(You can hear the haunting overture or prelude, performed at the BBC Proms by the Milan Symphony Orchestra under Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, in the YouTube video at the bottom,)

Presented by Madison Opera, this performance will remain in my memory as one of the best I have attended here.

The traditional production was well staged by director Fenlon Lamb with beautiful sets (below) designed for Hawaii Opera Theater and provided by Utah Opera. The sets provided a sense of spaciousness and perspective as befits grand houses in 19th-century Paris.

Likewise, the costumes were spectacular, particularly in the masquerade scene (below) in the second act where almost everyone was in opulent black.

The three principal characters were all well portrayed, although tenor Mackenzie Whitney’s Alfredo (below left) seemed rather youthful to be proclaiming he was being reborn by his love for Violetta (below right).

Both Whitney and baritone Weston Hurt (below right), who portrayed Alfredo’s father Germont, sang perfectly well.

But all of my notes seem to have focused on soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez’s portrayal of Violetta (below left, with Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo). One aria, duet and ensemble after another was remarkably sung with her pure and crystalline voice.

Lopez is also a talented actress who convincingly conveyed the emotions of the heroine in their wide gamut from care-free courtesan to love-struck woman to abandoned consumptive.

I was close enough to the stage to see the changing emotions flicker across Lopez’s face, and I was very impressed, and ultimately moved, by her performance.

All three of the main characters could sing, but Lopez could really sing and act as well. It was an outstanding performance that left me quite affected.

The chorus sounded wonderful, and the choristers did not overact, for which I was grateful. Their contribution to the finale of the second act made that ensemble heartbreaking. Likewise, the final ensemble at the end of the opera left me bereft.

Altogether conductor, orchestra, singers, chorus, set, costumes and lighting combined to create an unforgettable afternoon. I pay tribute to Verdi for creating an enduring work of art and to John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) for an amazing performance.

For more background about the real-life story and inspiration of the opera and more details about the production and the cast, go to:

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an older couple. The woman was obviously very ill and apparently was unable to lift her head high enough to see the stage, let alone read the supertitles. Her partner — I assume it was her husband — patiently whispered a summary of the supertitles throughout the performance.

I believe that people feel that they are inaudible to others when they whisper to their neighbor, but we all know that this is not the case.

I mentioned this to friends during the intermission, and they said that I should say something. However, my Midwestern niceness kicked in and I just endured it. I thought that perhaps this would be the last opera she would ever attend.

Yet I could not help feeling that I would not have enjoyed someone whispering in my ear while music was being performed; and I would have perhaps prepared in advance so that I knew what I would be hearing.

Additionally, I darkly mused that perhaps “La Traviata” is not an appropriate opera to bring someone who is critically ill to.

Readers’ thoughts on this matter would be appreciated.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. Firstly, your description sounds like our very good friends who made a real effort to attend the opera on Sunday. We are sorry that your enjoyment was compromised, but perhaps you should have used your “Midwestern niceness” as suggested by your friends instead of having to spoil your otherwise fine write-up with mean-spirited comments about people you don’t know. One possibility might have been to introduce yourself and your concern during the first intermission and perhaps suggest that the husband summarize the next act for his wife at that time and do the same again during the next intermission. There are many ways to show kindness in these days when we want to include everyone in the beauty of music. Try to imagine how the couple were transported during the performance. (I have talked with them and they were.) Perhaps there was an empty seat elsewhere that would have helped you, too, to enjoy the evening.


    Comment by Rolf & Judith Mjaanes — November 8, 2019 @ 9:46 am

  2. Years ago, going to the cinema used to be a pleasant experience. I’m wondering if what happened in the cinemas is spreading to concert halls.

    I can recall when the owner of the cinema I regularly attended used to “patrol” up and down the isles and kick people out who made noise/unpleasantness for others. It worked and he had a good business.

    His type is long gone and now I’m wondering if the behavior we regularly see happen in almost all of the cinemas (making them virtually impossible to attend anymore) is spreading to the concert halls. Lots of people seem to think they are alone, or in their own living room where they can do as they please when in fact there are huge numbers of people around them. Many people (like the elderly couple in this reviewer’s account) seem and act oblivious to other people.

    In my experience, doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.
    (I’m also beginning to wonder if maybe we haven’t gone too far as a society with democracy!).

    It would be refreshing to get some other perspectives.


    Comment by fflambeau — November 6, 2019 @ 11:31 pm

  3. Your reviewer says older couple. I regret the need for an adjective. The deference to them because this might be her last opera. Please, give me a break. There are kind ways to ask for quiet. A finger over your lips. A gentle tap on the shoulder and shake of the head. We’ve all experienced these kinds of distractions. Teens, soul-kissing couples, women with hats on…….


    Comment by Ronnie — November 6, 2019 @ 8:35 am

    • Why not tell the truth? If it is an “older couple”, why not say so? It just underlines the fact that boorish behavior is not a monopoly of the young. It is also necessary to explain the lady’s inability to look up and see the written translations herself.

      Moroever, the “kind ways” you list, Ronnie, often do not work all the time. One gets the sense, reading the critic’s comments, that these offenders were people who feel they are “entitled”. Hence, nothing that one does, would likely work and create a huge scene (perhaps the real reason the critic did nothing). Sadly enough, and this isn’t mentioned by the critic, it also means that ushers were not doing their job (they seldom do, since it is low paying and “doing anything” might imperil their position).


      Comment by fflambeau — November 6, 2019 @ 7:20 pm

  4. It was a splendid afternoon, indeed. It seemed there were a lot of empty seats. I’ve noticed that at the symphony concerts, too. Does anyone have information on ticket sales? The programming is good — something old, something new, quality guest artists…. Did everyone blow their budgets on Hamilton tickets?


    Comment by Gwen — November 6, 2019 @ 6:16 am

    • When ticket sales go South, it is usually an indicator that something is seriously wrong.

      Just yesterday, I checked on ticket availability for the upcoming MSO concert and saw that about 40% of seats are available (unsold). This despite numerous cost cutting ticket offers. It’s online.

      In the case of the MSO, the conductor is dull and so is his programming. Empty seats will be a problem until the symphony moves in a new direction and chooses a better leader. People are voting with their feet.


      Comment by fflambeau — November 6, 2019 @ 7:24 pm

  5. It is sad and also dispiriting when someone talks (or in this case, whispers) during a musical production. It is like a slap in the face to the people sitting nearby. I once had the following very unpleasant occurence happen to me in Hawaii after a well-played violin concerto by Nigel Kennedy. This happened in the second half of the concert.

    I was sitting behind a couple who began not only whispering or even talking, but arguing out loud during an orchestral piece. They could be heard by anyone within 50 feet. I tried shoosing them: it didn’t work.

    Finally, in frustration, I tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “Please shut up so people can hear the music.” The offender: Nigel Kennedy (I did not know it was him because he was sitting directly in front of me and I only saw his face when he turned around). Since then, I have never bought a single album that he has performed on and to this day, turn off any radio that plays him performing.

    (To his credit, he and the lady did move outside the concert hall where they continued their argument.).

    In this instance, I think the critic handled the “ill” lady as best as possible; but she probably will be at it again.


    Comment by fflambeau — November 6, 2019 @ 1:09 am

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