By Lawrence Budmen

Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" stands at the crossroads of 19th century opera. This 1853 score is one of the most popular operas ever written. Verdi based his opera on the novel and play "La Dame Aux Camelias" ("The Lady of the Camelias") by Alexandre Dumas, the younger. The Dumas story is a fictionalized account of an affair between the author and the legendary Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis. (Hollywood dramatized this tale in director George Cukor's film "Camille" with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Music from Verdi's opera was used as the incidental score for the movie.) Verdi's heroine Violetta Valery (an Italian embodiment of Duplessis) is one of the most demanding soprano roles in the operatic repertoire. The score is filled with melodic inspiration - arias and duets that have taken on a life of their own. Florida Grand Opera opened its season with this operatic evergreen at Dade County Auditorium (seen on November 29, 2003).

About halfway through "La Traviata" the very nature of Verdi's musical discourse changes dramatically. For most of the first half of the 19th century, bel canto opera held sway. Bel canto scores were marked by a series of arias and duets in two parts - a slow, melodically expansive first part, followed by a fast, brilliant cabaletta that challenged and exploited the singer's vocal range. The operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Vicenzo Bellini and the early operas of Verdi marked the very essence of the bel canto style. Act 1 and the first scene of Act 2 of "La Traviata" are composed according to this formula; yet in Act 2, Scene 2 (set at a party at the home of Violetta's friend Flora Bervoix) a repeated agitated figure in the orchestra and vocal declamation replaces formal arias or ensembles. Here music drama was born. Verdi's future works and Italian opera would never be the same again. (Verdi had already experimented with an elongated musico-dramatic sequence in the third act of his 1849 opera "Luisa Miller.") This pivotal scene (a card game between Alfredo Germont and Baron Douphol - rivals for Violetta's love - followed by an emotional confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo) epitomized the problematical nature of this production. 

Renata Scotto, one of the great sopranos of the past four decades, directed this production. The handsome, traditional sets were designed by Peter Dean Beck for a 1998 FGO staging of the opera. (Costumes were provided by Canada's Malabar Limited.) Madame Scotto had previously staged a beautiful version of "La Traviata" for the New York City Opera. There she worked with set, costume, and lighting designers to create a totally new theatrical mise-en-scene. In Miami she was faced with adapting a pre-existing production which brought its own set of directional limitations. Too often theatrical devices were awkward or ill chosen. In the crucial gambling scene, the chorus was exiled to a corner in back of the gambling table where they were largely immobile and uninvolved in the tense dramatic scene - a Greek chorus in 19th century Italo-French melodrama? Visually it made for a less than stunning tableau. 

Scotto was one of the great interpreters of the role of Violetta Valery. (She recorded the role twice under legendary conductors - Antonino Votto and Carlos Kleiber.) The role has been a showpiece for such famous divas as Licia Albanese, Maria Callas, and Joan Sutherland, and Anna Moffo. The young American soprano Leah Hunt was Florida Grand's Violetta. Ms. Hunt is undoubtedly a gifted singer. Her voice easily encompasses the role's daunting vocal range. (It has been said that "La Traviata" requires two types of soprano voices - a coloratura for Act 1 and a lyrico-spinto for the remainder of the opera.) The soprano's challenging task was not made easier by having to sing the aria "Ah fors e lui" while lying down - one of Scotto's questionable directional touches. While singing the cabaletta "Sempre libera" Hunt threw pillows wildly about the stage - more like a teenager about to go on her first date than a hardened courtesan who feels true love, even against her will. She handled the florid coloratura of the Act 1 finale with brio and polish. Yet too often her singing was emotionally neutral. Hunt's vocalism needed a greater variety of tonal colors and a stronger sense of the music's grand lyrical line. The drama of Violetta's emotional journey and sacrifice was strangely muted. Still there were moments when Hunt was really effective. Her "Ah! Dite alla giovine" (in Act 2) had a plaintive sadness that was touching. With greater experience Hunt may well fulfill her clear potential. She should exercise restraint in taking on such demanding roles at this stage of her career. 

Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's stern father, is one of the great Verdi baritone roles. His famous aria "Di Provenza il mar" is pure baritonal bel canto. (Many will always associate this role with the great Robert Merrill.)Earle Patriarco failed to make the moment memorable. While Patriarco's sound was loud and booming, his voice is basically hollow. The warm, caressing tones of the true Verdi baritone were absent from his singing. Dramatically he conveyed the harsh side of Germont's nature effectively, but failed to show his compassionate response to Violetta's suffering. Jorge Antonio Pita as Alfredo was the most effective of the three principals. He processes a bright, ringing tenor voice. While his soft tones were not always firmly under control, the robust sound of his voice could be exciting. The drinking song "Libiamo, ne lieti catici" was rousingly effective. His "De miei bollenti spiriti" was vigorous in the best Italianate manner. His stage demeanor, however, was disconcerting. Much of the time he seemed to be uninvolved in the drama around him. There was little chemistry between Hunt and Pita. He seemed to be merely waiting around for his turn to sing. 

In the supporting cast Melina Pineda, a member of FGO's Young Artists Program, was a standout as Flora Bervoix. Her light mezzo-soprano sound was attractive. She phrased with musicality and Úlan and her stage presence was riveting. The exciting Spanish dancing of Rosa Mercedes and Raul Salcedo in the Act 2 party scene was a high point of the evening. Salcedo is a dynamic flamenco dancer and Mercedes's flamboyant choreography gave him a real opportunity to shine.

Conductor Richard Buckley was a tower of strength in the pit. His taut, intense conducting showed a real affinity for the surging lyricism of the Verdi's melodic line. He never let the rhythmic momentum flag and his control (over stage and orchestra) was total - a real pro! (With ten former Florida Philharmonic players in its ranks, the opera's orchestra was much improved.) Even in a less than perfect performance, the beauty of Verdi's music is eternal. Buckley's conducting was imbued with the true Verdian spirit and helped to redeem a problematical production. 

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