Monday, April 23, 2018

Raucous partying and well-surveyed emotions go head to head in Opera San Jose's vividly directed La traviata

When the curtain went up on Opera San Jose’s current revival of La traviata, Giuseppe Verdi’s most widely staged work, you knew you were in for an interesting encounter with a woman the demimonde held claim to. Surrounding the jubilant, white-laced gowned Violetta, looking more bride-to-be, however, than an eye-turning courtesan, a plush huddle of women in shades of purple-to-mauve and men in black tuxedos began a raucous start to proceedings that splashed the foreground with wild background life and screams of celebration. It could have swamped poor Violetta’s limelight - it did at times, again later at Violetta’s friend Flora’s party where the fetishes come out - but in this always vividly directed production by Shawna Lucey, when inner emotions were surveyed, they were peeled back to give glaring clarity.

Scene from Act 1, La traviata, Opera San Jose
Lucey brings forward Verdi’s original early 19th century Paris setting to the period immediately following the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Erik Flatmo’s appealing and adaptable set - an obliquely orientated spit-level room featuring a large rear tracery window with a view to the Eiffel Tower, becoming Violetta’s country villa, cosy with fireplace and a view to a hedged yard for Act 2, to Flora’s debauched gambling den and, finally, Violetta’s spare, low-lit bedroom in Act 3 - provided an effective platform for both the many entrances and exits and carefully thought separation of action. Deciphering the details for most modern eyes, it was neither here no there but, in a telling manner, a soaring erect monument functioned as much as symbol of engineering progress as it would seem for a male-dominant society in which women were objectified.

Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes were appropriately elegant and Pamila Z. Gray captured a gorgeous realism in her lighting design. When the late afternoon light gradually threw a copper glow on the drawing room of Violetta’s villa, you would’ve sworn the sun itself was backstage - part of an overall scheme that formed a seductive context for Violetta’s ultimate looming death.

Details such as this compliment Lucey’s fully laden storytelling that moved along with a cinematic quality where no angle seemed left unresolved. The woman who entered to find Violetta and Alfredo in their first fervent embrace and later suggested gossiping to the partygoers and the silent conversation that continued between Dr Grevil and Annina after he left Violetta’s bedside provided excitement to the eye in Lucey’s string of active ideas. 

Pene Pati as Alfredo and Amanda Kingston as Violetta
There were issues, perhaps due to Michelle Klaers D’Alo’s often over-choreographed work with the Opera San Jose chorus who were certainly fleet of foot and demonstrated just how well they can act but their early resounding singing fell into disarray by the time they sang Act 2's song of the handsome matador from Biscay.

Fortunately, the chemistry between lush-voiced Amanda Kingston’s Violetta and Pene Pati’s searing Alfredo was brought together poignantly - both sensitive actors, both compelling singers and both secure in sealing their passions with long extended kisses.

Kingston effortlessly brought out a cachet of complexly drawn richness in Violetta’s character - her indelible vivaciousness, an initial mocking of the man she would seek love’s solace in and the tender and romantic side it later brought out, the grief at giving up Alfredo and, in suffering, the desperation to live. Kingston’s vocal adeptness to harness both the vitality and gravitas of the role was evident. A meaty lower register impressed as much as the purity and ring of the top of the voice and her accomplished ornamentations greatly appealed in this, the third performance of the run. If the voice required that little bit more attention, it was in the whispering lighter side. It wasn’t as if it couldn’t be achieved without loss of emotional depth because that’s exactly what Kingston added in a final act she made both immediate and heartbreaking.

A big man with a big, warm thrilling sound who injects brilliant life into every note, New Zealand tenor Pene Pati appeared to relish every turn of events in his performance as the passionate Alfredo (Dane Suarez alternates in the role). Diction-clear, and delivering phrases with confident momentum, Pati, like Kingston, easily mined the potential in his character with a youthful ardour to accompany it and making a perfect contrast to Violetta’s worldly assuredness.

Amanda Kingston as Violetta and Malcolm MacKenzie as Giorgio Germont
When Alfredo’s staunch patriarchal father, Giorgio Germont, arrived at Violetta’s country villa in Act 2, he came in resonant and smoky baritone form with the well-cast Malcolm MacKenzie (Trevor Neal alternates in the role). Once Violetta and Giorgio’s initial restless orbit about the room was done, the pair settled into a thoroughly engaging musical discourse in which the voices, drama and action entwined poignantly. MacKenzie coloured Giorgio with a calculating, calm and starched presence in front of a woman he saw unfit for his son, authoritative in front of his son and genuinely remorseful for his demands in front of both in the final scene. 

Broad-ranged gravelly bass Philip Skinner projected voluminously as an imposing Baron Douphol, at times overwhelming his colleagues but dignified in stature until the he lifts a brutal hand to Violetta. Handsome and warm baritone Babatunde Akinboboye took to the task with complete ease on all fours in doggy fashion to satisfy Flora’s masochistic tendencies as Marchese D’Obigny. As Flora, mezzo-soprano Christina Pezzarossi sang without the consistent radiance you would expect to match a persona she otherwise filled with fun and frivolity and Mason Gates took a little time to settle before his muscular tenor took flight as Gastone. Both Erin O’Meally and Colin Ramsey supported the drama sympathetically in fine voice as Violetta’s young dependable maid Annina and her attentive doctor, Dr Grenvil respectively. 

But as passionately interpreted overall as it was, it wasn’t all roses musically. Verdi’s  stringed introspective overture moved along languidly, the notes clear but requiring a deeper intensity. The tempi often shifted abruptly making its demands on the artists. Most luminous, however, was conductor Joseph Marcheso’s ability to raise the full orchestral forces with surging energy and expression when the score demanded and where the players of the San Jose Opera Orchestra made their greatest impression. 

La traviata 
Opera San Jose
California Theatre
Until 29th April 2018

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San Jose

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