UTAH LYRIC OPERA, LA TRAVIATA, Covey Center, Provo, Feb. 17; second performance 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, tickets at 801-852-7007 or online at www.coveycenter.org.
It is with great pleasure that I congratulate the Utah Lyric Opera on their monumental achievement of last night’s La Traviata. I’ve never been to a performance quite like this one.
I’ve seen polished productions of some of my favorite operas in the world’s great opera halls, and I grab tickets to the Met’s Live in HD program whenever I can.
But I’ve also seen dingy, tourist-trap productions of Mozart operas staged in the soon-to-be condemned buildings on the outskirts of Salzburg. (In particular, I’m thinking of a staging of The Marriage of Figaro that was an exhibition in wheezing and winded morbid obesity.)
This ULO production was neither of these things.
When you go to see a high school production of King Lear, you’re not really expecting to see Shakespeare. You don’t care what psychological insights a local 16-year-old has into the role of the falling monarch. You’re just going to see a niece or nephew, and you’ll be pleased that they remember their lines and speak clearly.
On the other hand, you don’t arrive at a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic wondering if they’ll put on a decent enough show. Their reputation isn’t in question – at that point, you’re expecting to hear the unadulterated genius of the composer.
But the ULO’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata (which is their first major opera production accompanied by an orchestra) allowed me to focus on Verdi while simultaneously being amazed at the quality of this decidedly local production.
For one, the orchestra was modest: the strings consisted of four violins, two violas, a cello and a bass. This gave the prelude a surprising intimacy; it was quite like listening to a string quartet. And although the violins had a few problems getting along throughout the opera, their trills towards the end of the prelude were right on – an effect that is sometimes lost in larger orchestras.
There was nothing hometowny, however, about the voice of Kearstin Piper Brown (Violetta). It was a pure joy to hear her. In the first act especially, she had a way of making a whole melody out of a single, sustained note. Her tone quality in the upper register was also particularly dazzling. She did fantastic things with “Sempre Libera.”
This is such a brilliant scene. If we know how the opera ends, the aria raises the old question of whether it really “is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” She decides that she would rather live a life of pleasure than commit to this new suitor, Alfredo. Would Violetta have been happier for those last few months if she never yielded to Alfredo? Didn’t the anxieties and ecstasies of their tumultuous relationship shorten her life? But then comes Alfredo’s voice, intruding on her hedonistic ramblings with “Amor è palpito dell’universo.” (“Love is the pulse of the universe”). Or as Brian Doyle succinctly and profoundly put it, “Love is why we are here.”
Speaking of Alfredo, Isaac Hurtado had a great voice, but he was also a superb actor. I never had trouble believing his adoration of Violetta, his anguish at her parting, his fury at the misunderstanding, his shame for his behavior, or his joy at the reconciliation. I think he shone the most when he interacted with the other performers – he had a great synergy with Violetta and Giorgio (Chris Holmes).
A scene that is so quintessentially opera is when two or more characters stand at opposing ends of the stage, shouting out their disagreeing ideologies. I love it. You could never have a prolonged scene with simultaneous shouting in a movie, but you can’t have an opera without at least two.
I was particularly taken with the conclusion of Act III, where I believe the entire cast is screaming at each other.
In that number, and at all times, the vocalists were helped by the almost cinematic blocking of the stage director, Elizabeth Hansen. Her background is in Broadway, television, and the silver screen, so it was no surprise that she gave a refreshing twist to this opera staging. For one, she moved the setting forward a good 200 years. I liked everything about that decision. It allowed for less garish costumes and sets, which I’m sure agreed well with the budget. Plus, with the current popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, we’re having a love affair with 20th century period pieces.
Throughout the opera, I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Both Violetta and Carmen are strong, beautiful female leads from the lower classes who capture the hearts of their social superiors. Both give flowers as a token of their affection and as a sort of amorous challenge. Both die.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” and while Carmen is obviously one of the greatest operas in the repertoire, Violetta’s death cut me much deeper than Carmen’s; it was more “poetical.”
Carmen certainly doesn’t deserve to be stabbed to death. Few people do. But she wasn’t a nice person, and she never showed that she was capable of sacrifice. Violetta, though, is marvelous. The people who deserve most to be happy are those willing to give up their own happiness for another.
In the first two acts of the opera, it’s hard to be convinced of Alfredo’s and Violetta’s love. Like so many Romeos and Juliettes, they don’t really know or deserve each other. But after Violetta’s sacrifice and Alfredo’s remorse, they’ve grown in their character and their love. Just when we want the most for them to run away together, fate and disease finally strike her down.
Anyway, I’m so happy for Utah County. The ULO has set a high bar for itself, and I eagerly anticipate watching them reach and exceed that standard again and again. They’ve proven that they have both the talent and the resources to bring great operas to the community. We’re ready to receive them.