Review: Lead singers shine in engaging performance of La Traviata

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Finally able to resume normal activities, Calgary Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s always popular La Traviata, Saturday night’s opening night performance drawing a full, appreciative house.

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Like most North American audiences, Calgarians tend to prefer their opera relatively straight and without the outre settings and approaches to opera often associated with Europe. And so it is with this production. Officially, at least, the production has been updated to Paris in the Jazz Age, the frolicsome 1920s serving as an analogue to Paris in the 1840s. In truth, this only affected the costumes in any meaningful way, something that provoked a few bemused smiles but no particular dramatic enlightenment or annoyance.

The production’s set is a unitary one, made to serve for all locations in which the opera is set. Neither lavish nor overly plain, it works perfectly well for the purpose. The costumes, as mentioned, are of the 1920s, as is the role and stage action of the chorus.

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If there was one distinctive point to the production, it was the scenes with the chorus, which made a remarkable impact both dramatically and vocally. It may have been where I sat, but the chorus sounded especially full and rich, so vivid was its sound and impact. The party scene in the first act was especially impressive, and in the dramatic encounter between Violetta and Alfredo in the second act which involved the chorus, the vocal impact was powerful,  the singing etched and rhythmically precise.

Here, as in other Verdi operas, the weight is carried by the trio of lead singers. The role of Violetta, the opera’s heroine, is notoriously difficult to sing, requiring someone with the flexibility of voice to handle the sheer speed of the famous “Sempre libra” that closes the first act, as well as the vocal heft to manage the dramatic element in the second act. And the third act needs the sweetest of lyric sopranos to make full impact of the pathos of the ending succeed.

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Talise Trevigne in the featured role in Calgary Opera’s La Traviata. Courtesy, Trudie Lee, HarderLee Photography
Talise Trevigne in the featured role in Calgary Opera’s La Traviata. Courtesy, Trudie Lee, HarderLee Photography jpg

All these things were managed impressively by American soprano Talise Trevigne, clearly the star of the production, who is making her debut with the company. All of her major moments, from the big closing aria of the first act to her dramatic encounters with Alfredo’s father in the second act, to her emotional “Addio del passato” in the final act were beautifully and compellingly sung. The final aria was, perhaps, the best of all. Essentially, Trevigne’s voice is of the lyric type, but there is also a substantial body to her sound and, impressively, she has a flexible, easy high register, a real benefit in this role. Taken as a whole, this was as fine a performance of this role as we have seen in Calgary in different productions over the years.

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Vocally, Trevigne had a fine partner in Andrew Haji as Alfredo. Haji was last heard here in Norma, a slightly heavier part vocally than is Alfredo. Acquitting himself very well in the previous opera, he was heard to even better effect here, the lyrical element of the role suiting his Italianate tenor voice perfectly. The drinking song in the first act set the stage for an even better “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” to open the second act, one of the best performances in the opera. And the audience was clearly moved by the “Parigi, o cara” duet in the final act, where Trevigne’s and Haji’s voices blended movingly in a tender moment. Throughout the performance, Haji’s clear, resonant voice projected easily over the orchestra, his singing everywhere that of a lead tenor.

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Hyung Yun was dramatically very strong as Alfredo’s father, and his voice is clearly of the right weight and type for the role. On this occasion, however, he seemed to struggle with the middle and upper part of his vocal registers, with a marked unevenness in the sound, especially compared to the vocal ease of the other principal singers. Yun is experienced in this role and there were many details in the performance that show what comes from a thorough knowledge of the role and its many nuances. Despite the vocal uncertainty, the overall projection of the role was satisfactory and effectively balanced the other principal singers.

The minor roles were also strongly handled, notably Matthew Trevino as Doctor Grenvil, whose ample voice and expressive singing made one wish his part was more than a cameo role. Juliana Krajcovic provided a sympathetic Annina, maid to Violetta, and the numerous other small roles also were well acted and sung.

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Chorusmaster Mark Morash stepped in for the originally scheduled conductor Gordon Gerrard. Remarkably assured, Morash guided the orchestra, soloists, and chorus through the opera with real competence, his conducting sensitive to both the emotional moments as well as the elan and brio of the dancing scene in the second act. It is fortunate for the company to have on staff two conductors who can handle mainstream opera with this level of authority.

Everyone enjoyed the gypsies and matadors in the second act. Kudos to Tania Alvarado in this regard, as well as to Alain Gauthier who handled the stage action with enough detail to be interesting without getting in the way of the singers. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting provided an atmospheric backdrop for the different scenes.

In sum, this was a thoroughly satisfying performance, with impressive singing and acting by the Calgary Opera Chorus, and with vocal treats from the two lead singers. Worthwhile attending, the production can be seen again on April 6 and April 8.

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