Best ever: Virginia Opera’s deeply affecting ‘La Traviata’

With astonishing performances by Cecilia Violetta López and Malcolm MacKenzie, Virginia Opera's current production of Verdi's tuneful, tragic masterpiece is a genuine three-hankie surprise.

Young soprano Cecilia Violetta López astonishes as Violetta in the Virginia Opera's "La Traviata." (Photo by Lucid Frame, courtesy of Virginia Opera)

FAIRFAX CITY, Virginia, March 22, 2015 – The Virginia Opera wraps up its 2014-2015 northern Virginia season Sunday afternoon with the second of two performances of Verdi’s enduringly popular tragic opera, “La Traviata” at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts.

Violetta (Cecilia Violetta López) and Alfredo (Rolando Sanz).
Violetta (Cecilia Violetta López) and Alfredo (Rolando Sanz) in happier times. (Photo: Lucid Frame)

This attractive co-production with the Des Moines Metro Opera, stars the young—and aptly-named—soprano Cecilia Violetta López in the title role of Violetta, a beautiful courtesan in 19th century Paris who cannot transcend her station in life. Co-starring with Ms. López is tenor Rolando Sanz who portrays the upper-class Alfredo, Violetta’s lover and would-be husband.

The entire magical concoction was directed by Lillian Groag whose understated but firm hand kept this sometimes crowded opera moving along smoothly and naturally.

With a libretto by his favored early collaborator Francesco Piave, Verdi’s 1853 “La Traviata” (rough translation: “The Fallen Woman”) was based on a popular French play, “La dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady of the Camellias”) which itself was an adaptation of a novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils, the fictionalized story of a young courtesan who was once the mistress of Dumas himself.

Read also: Virginia Opera’s weirdly beautiful “Salome” at GMU.

The opera begins in medias res, during a lavish party at the home of our heroine Violetta Valéry (Ms. López), whose serial relations with some of the wealthiest men in Paris have provided her with a happy and lavish lifestyle.

Unfortunately, we discover early on that Violetta is consumptive and may not have long to live, a situation that becomes considerably more complicated when she unexpectedly falls madly in love with the wealthy Alfredo Germont (Mr. Sanz), who is equally smitten.

Forgetting the social impossibility of an eventual permanent union, the young couple leaves Paris for an elaborate country home for which Violetta pays by selling off her posessions, confident of spending the rest of her life with Alfredo.

Of course, this is opera, and such things are not to be. Alfredo’s father, “Old Germont” (Malcolm MacKenzie), shows up unexpectedly and convinces Violetta to spurn his son and break off the relationship for the sake of his family’s reputation. Tragedy ensues, leading to this opera’s almost unbearably sad conclusion.

We continue to be amazed at the quality of Virginia Opera’s recent productions, and this “La Traviata” is no exception. While this co-production’s sets seem to some extent to have been created with a strict budget in mind, they nonetheless still manage to project the considerable glamor required to create the glittering atmosphere depicted in three of this opera’s four acts.

La Traviata party.
Proof that tipsy revelers wore lampshade hats even in 19th century Paris. It’s party time in Virginia Opera’s “La Traviata.” (Photo: Lucid Frame)

Ditto the beautiful and lavish period costumes that fully project the bright lights and happy times of 19th century denizens of Paris—or at least those Parisians who could afford such things at the time.

But vaulting this production into the big time is the performance of young soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Violetta. Unknown to this critic previously, this remains the case no more. After a tentative start in Act I, Ms. López soon bloomed, like a gorgeous but fragile camellia, into perhaps the most affecting Violetta we have ever had the pleasure of encountering.

Ms. López’ success in this role relies in equal parts on her uncanny ability as a stage actress and her warm and infinitely expressive soprano instrument, whose seemingly limitless subtlety alternates great power and conviction with soul-gripping weakness.

Both shades of being are key to any effective portrayal of Violetta who pursues life with a carpé diem attitude, full in the knowledge that she likely will not have long to live. Ms. López embraces them in her metaphysical interpretation of this role, leading to the most affecting finale we have yet experienced in this opera. No two ways about it: Hers is simply an astounding performance, all the more so since its breadth, depth and quality were entirely unexpected, at least by this writer.

(Below: Ms. López discusses about her role as Violetta in this Virginia Opera video.)

As Alfredo Germont, Rolando Sanz found his lyric tenor voice buried in the early going beneath the sometimes dense fabric of the Virginia Opera’s orchestra, in this case the Richmond Symphony under the direction of Andrew Bisantz. The orchestra actually played beautifully and without any noticeable problems. But in the early going, at least, the orchestra managed to submerge some of the soloists with its sheer volume, a problem that seemed to have been remedied in the later acts.

Once we were able to hear Mr. Sanz a bit better, we were able to appreciate his varied and sensitive approach to his somewhat brittle role—that of an ardent lover whose love quickly turns to blindingly unquestioning hatred when he feels his love has been spurned without reason.

Read also: Virginia Opera’s “Pinafore”: Lively, funny, intelligent

Another high point in this production was the moving performance of baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as “old” Georgio Germont, the methodical father of Alfredo who cares more about family honor than the feelings of either his son or Violetta. Georgio is simply not a very likeable guy.

That is, until you get a chance to see Mr. MacKenzie’s take on this role. Putting emphasis not on his character’s seeming coldness but instead on certain key lines in Verdi’s sung dialogue, Mr. MacKenzie discovers an affectionate father who’s not as much an unfeeling sexist patriarch as we might suspect.

Instead, he is a deeply-conflicted paterfamilias who sees his son’s romantic situation for what it is, but feels trapped by the paper-thin but very real mores of his times, rationally determining that he must enforce them for the sake of his family’s—and his about-to-be-married daughter’s—social position.

Mr. MacKenzie’s affectionate gestures toward Violetta even as he demands an end to her romance are key to his multi-layered portrayal of a man often played as a two-dimensional villain. Mr. MacKenzie’s supple baritone and beautiful diction and phrasing also put his Old Germont in a more provocative light.

While “Traviata” is notable for its focus on its three main characters, the supporting players are important as well, particularly the smaller roles of Flora Bervoix and Baron Douphol, Violetta’s once and future lover. Both were incisively played by Courtney Miller and André Chiang respectively, with Mr. Chiang’s austere dignity providing crucial support at important moments in this opera’s key conflict.

We can’t forget the fine performance of the chorus in this production either. Blocking, choreography and characterization were spot-on as was the excellence of the jubilant choral singing, important in establishing the festive background in this opera, one that contrasts with its tragic plot.

White camellias.
White camellias, key symbol of a pure heart in this opera and this production. (Photo via Wikipedia)

We suspect that by the time most Northern Virginia readers get a chance to read our review, Sunday’s performance at GMU will likely be underway. But for those who don’t mind a bit of travel, or for residents elsewhere in Virginia, the Virginia Opera’s beautiful production of “Traviata” is headed next for Richmond (March 27 and 29), and back to the Tidewater area, this time in Virginia Beach, on April 11 and 12—its final performances.

If residents of either city haven’t committed to tickets yet, we suggest that they reconsider. They’re not likely to see a better production of “La Traviata” for quite some time to come.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars.)

Opera running Time: Not quite three hours, including a single 15-minute intermission.

The final Northern Virginia performance of Virginia Opera’s “La Traviata” takes place Sunday, March 22, 2015 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, on the University’s main campus in Fairfax City. Curtain time: 2 p.m.

Tickets and information: Call (703) 993-2787 (GMU Box Office), or visit the Virginia Opera website.

Patrons in Richmond and Virginia Beach, where “La Traviata” is being performed next, can find ticket information at the same website. Alternatively, call 1-866-673-7282 weekdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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