Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: 'La Traviata'

Lyric Opera Virginia
Peter Mark conducting
Sept. 16, The Steward School, Richmond

Lyric Opera Virginia, organized by Peter Mark after his dismissal from Virginia Opera last year, is making its debut, in Richmond and three other locales, with Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the work that Mark conducted 36 years ago as the first production of his former company.

The veteran opera impresario and conductor thus comes full circle in inaugural repertory, but apparently not in presentation. Some who saw and heard the 1975 Norfolk “Traviata” (I didn’t) remember it as being more ambitious than polished. This show is beautifully staged, with finely made and nicely angled scenery and lavish costumes; characterfully but unaffectedly acted, thanks to stage director Michael Shell; and very well sung.

Manon Strauss Evrard, the soprano who starred in Mark-led Virginia Opera productions of “The Tales of Hoffmann” and “Lucia di Lammermoor,” leads this launching of Lyric Opera Virginia as Violetta, the tragic heroine of “Traviata.” The role is one of the prime tests of an Italianate soprano’s vocal and emotional spectrum, and Evrard shines on most every point of that spectrum. She also has the ideal look of a Violetta, from the elegantly seductive to the fatally fragile.

She is well-matched, physically and vocally, with the young tenor Cody Austin, who portrays Alfredo Germont, whose love inspires Violetta to abandon the life of a Parisian courtesan. Austin’s clear, robust and (usually) reliably pitched voice is as much an attraction of this show as Evrard’s – a pretty high standard to meet.

The third principal character of “Traviata,” Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, intent on severing the liason of his son and Violetta, is one of the trickiest of Verdi’s major roles – a heavy with a heart. Many baritones make an awkward transition from fatherly disapproval to sympathy for Violetta’s plight. Zachary Nelson’s shift from wooden sternness to soulful empathy is not the smoothest that one might imagine; but, then, Verdi is not especially helpful on that score. As a voice and presence, though, Nelson is a most convincing Giorgio.

Among the supporting cast, standouts are Andrew Seigla, as Gaston, the life of the Act 1 party scene, and Emily Duncan-Brown, as Annina, Violetta’s maid.

Mark’s conducting of the production’s 34-member pit orchestra is consistently sensitive to Verdi’s dramatic and lyrical requirements, especially the orchestration’s potent undertone of pathos.

The theater of Richmond’s Steward School is the smallest of the four venues at which this company is staging “Traviata,” and on this opening night the volume level of voices, especially en masse, was high, crossing the line to overwhelming for those seated close to the stage. Downshifting of decibels will be needed in this space.

The production repeats at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Cramer Arts Center of The Steward School, Gayton and Ryandale roads. Tickets: $20-$85. Additional performances will be staged at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater on Sept. 20 and the Ferguson Arts Center of Christopher Newport University in Newport News on Sept. 23 and 25. Details: (757) 446-6666;