Tag Archives: Lord

A Captivating “La Traviata”

“La Traviata”
Merrill Auditorium
July 26, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Enchanting” is not a word one reads often in music reviews, but it applies to the Opera Maine production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which opened Wednesday night at Merrill Auditorium.

I was prepared to turn up my willing suspension of disbelief to high volume—the plot of “La Traviata” is as full of holes as a political platform—but I was hooked from the first note of the prelude, as played by Stephen Lord’s fine orchestra, and captivated upon the raising of the curtain on a Parisian drawing room of the 1930s.

The set, by Lloyd Evans, with scenery provided by Opera Carolina, is marvelous, with its massive curved stairway in red velvet, and the costumes, by Millie Hiibel, are equally gorgeous. The garden of the second act evokes bucolic sophistication with a gazebo that dominates the scene.

Director Dona D. Vaughn’s choice of the 1930’s era, with its connotations of ”The Great Gatsby,” was inspired. “La Traviata,” written in 1853, failed on its first appearance due to its subject matter and staging in modern dress.

The initial flop was also due to an inappropriate diva in the title role of Violetta. That was not a problem with soprano Maria Natale, who not only has a glorious voice and acting ability, but actually looks the part. I had not remembered how difficult her role is to sing at all. Verdi’s score is as full of flourishes, ornaments and gigantic leaps in pitch as anything by Handel. To sing it with appropriate expression is trebly difficult, but Natale accomplished it believably, even in the prolonged death scene.

Tenor Mackenzie Whitney, as Alfredo, was equally appropriate, wooing Violetta with good looks, devotion and astonishing naivety. What makes him appealing to her, in this version, seems to have been his vulnerability.

In the father-and-son scenes, however, baritone Joo Won Kang, as Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, steals the show, especially in the well-known aria “Di Provenza il mar” in which he recalls happy moments in their house by the sea.

An accomplished chorus, under the direction of Robert Russell, lightens up the stage in Violetta’s lively parties, providing welcome comic interludes in the tragedy, including a fantastic gypsy dance and a lively pas de deux by principals of the Portland Ballet, Kelsey Harrison and Russell Hewey.

The minor roles, for which Verdi severely limits the number of lines sung, were also perfectly portrayed. Bass Hidenori Inoue, as Alfredo’s rival, Baron Duphol, is his exact opposite, projecting power and menace like a Samurai.

The final death scene is sometimes parodied as too long and over-blown, but Verdi’s music carries the day, making it as believable as Raymond Carver’s depiction of the death of Chekhov, in which the presiding doctor orders up a bottle of champagne. Such telling details, in which Vaughn excels, make it work.

Looking for something to quibble with, I inquired if it was possible for Alfredo and Duphol to have a duel in 1930. The last recorded duel in France occurred in 1967. (Oh well, the practice would make us all more polite.)

The performance earned a long and well-deserved standing ovation, finally bringing on stage almost everyone concerned, with flowers for Natale and Vaughn.

There are sill a few tickets left for Friday’s performance. I would urge anyone who loves opera to snap them up.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Opera Maine Presents “La Traviata” Tonight and Friday

Preview of “La Traviata”
July 26. 2017
By Christopher Hyde

If you want to hear some of Verdi’s most lushly Romantic music, featured on most collections of greatest opera hits, there are still a few tickets left for tonight’s and Friday’s performances of “La Traviata” by Opera Maine (formerly PORTopera).

The production, at Merrill Auditorium, is directed by Dona D. Vaughn, with orchestra conducted by Stephen Lord. It features nationally known artists Maria Natale as Violetta and Mackenzie Whitney as Alfredo. Both are making their debut with Opera Maine, singing these leading roles for the first time.

The first performance of “La Traviata,” staged in modern dress (for 1853), was a disaster, because of the subject (which could be translated at “The Working Girl” by Joe Green), the staging and the disparity between the singers and their roles. A second try, set around 1700, was an instant success and “La Traviata” has remained one of the most popular operas of all time.

The Opera Maine production takes place in the 1930s, when Parisian drawing rooms were still elegant, and penicillin had not been invented. Where would tragic opera be without consumption?

The chorus is composed of Maine singers, under the direction of Robert Russell, and Lord considers it one of the best he has worked with.

Dona Vaughn is known for her fresh approach to operatic classics, and “La Traviata,” I’m sure, will be no exception. I’m looking forward to tonight.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

A New Take on “Tosca”

“Tosca”
Merrill Auditorium
July 28
by Christopher Hyde

PORTopera artistic director Dona Vaughn has done it again, with a fresh look at one of the most popular operas in the repertoire: Puccini’s “Tosca.” I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, which went off (almost) without a hitch, providing a good sense of what can be expected from the final version on Thursday.
“Tosca” is not one of my favorite operas. Puccini seems to have taken a leaf from Wagner, with heavy brass, leit-motifs, high drama and few arias that one can go home whistling. The entire plot is an exercise in futility. Once the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (and his chef’s invention of a new chicken dish), reaches Rome, Scarpia and his minions should have burned their papers and taken ship for the colonies instead of pursuing their victims to the death and beyond. But self-preservation is never a strong suit of tragic opera.
Vaughn, while faithful to to the libretto, emphasizes Tosca’s evolution from self-absorbed diva to tragic heroine, with religious overtones that echo the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s recent production of “Dialogs of the Carmelites.” During the first act, one is almost sorry for her lover Cavaradosi, to be burdened with a jealous, demanding, insecure and apparently insatiable partner. He certainly doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about another tryst at the cottage.
When things begin to go downhill, and she must overcome her religious scruples to kill Scarpia and save Cavaradosi, Tosca begins to show true strength of character and love rather than infatuation. Finally, her suicide becomes an act of faith, confident that God will judge in her favor over Scarpia.
Vaughn also emphasizes the point made by A.E. Housman in “To an Athlete Dying Young,” that after the height of bliss experienced by the lovers, any kind of everyday existence would be an anticlimax.
The opera is not fully staged, but in costume, with a few simple props placed in front of a full orchestra. A platform at stage right serves both as an artist’s studio and the parapet from which Tosca flings herself in the final scene.
In spite of a lack of stage settings, Vaughn has a lot to work with. Alexandra LoBianco, as Tosca, and Adam Diegel, as Cavaradosi, have powerful, well controlled voices offering a wide range of dynamics and a certain cutting edge. They are well matched and their final duet, a cappella, is marvelous.
The orchestra, under Stephen Lord, leaves nothing to be desired. It could be transferred to the pit of the Met and no one would know the difference. Members of the Choral Art Society and a children’s chorus under Sarah Bailey, gave fine performances.
James Morris, as Scarpia, provides an astonishingly good impression of the Devil as gentleman, expecting every snap of his fingers to be instantly obeyed. His lust for Tosca emphasizes the once-and-done nature of passion, while his physical approach reminds one of Dr. Johnson’s observation about sex: “The position is ridiculous, the pleasure fleeting and the expense damnable.”
The scene in which Tosca stabs him, twice, with a table knife, is worth the price of admission. As Scarpia begins to disrobe for his intended conquest, he seems to inflate, like a balloon or a tumescent organ, and then to deflate just as rapidly when punctured, as he mutters “Killed by a woman,” in sheer amazement.
The supertitles were good, in spite of some anachronisms, but they did not seem quite bright enough to be easily legible, at least from the side of the auditorium.
The single glitch in the dress rehearsal provided some comic relief, when the timing was off for Tosca’s discovery that Cavadarosi is really dead and not play-acting. To repeat the scene, the corpse had to roll over.
As of this writing, there were a few seats left for Thursday’s performance. Now would be a good time to snap them up. And it would also be a good time for an angel to step up and finance a fully-staged version of say, “Porgy and Bess.” What couldn’t Vaughn do with her own set designer?