Framed by Wagner’s “Ring” last summer and the premiere of “Amelia” in the spring, Seattle is spending the rest of its resources this season on a short Verdi survey. “La traviata” was the opening gesture over the weekend at McCaw Hall with “Il trovatore” to follow in January and “Falstaff” in February and March.
The company’s general director Speight Jenkins did not choose lesser-known works but standard bearers of the Verdi canon. It would have been interesting to explore some less frequented byways of the composer, but in these perilous economic times, the need to fill the house is imperative. This weekend it looked as if Seattle Opera accomplished that, at least in the first two of nine performances.
One can greet “Traviata” with a ho-hum attitude because it has been done throughout the Western world so many times. And a few in Seattle as well. With reason. It is one of the great works, musically and dramatically, in the whole of opera. However, since the company has not mounted a production in 13 years, a troubled economy or not, it was time to revisit this opera.
The production is not new: Sets and costumes are from San Francisco Opera and have traveled bit although Seattle, as usual, made a few amendments. That said, it is handsome and well-designed. set in the period for which it was intended. It provides a warm, pleasing context for the music drama, nothing to distract one from the business at hand. The liberties are those taken by stage director Mark Streshinsky, in his house debut. In general, he is a sensible stage director, moving people around with considerable acumen. Everyone — chorus to principals — relates to one another in a matter of fact way. There is nothing provocative or innovative in most of what he does, but he is not a man without ideas. Some are quite good and rather telling.. What he accomplishes rings true. However, he goes off the mark on occasion, such as having Violetta sing on top of the banquet table, amid dishes and crystal; putting the men under the women’s hoop skirts and the women on top of the men. All rather vulgar and certainly gratuitous. In the main, these “bad” ideas are mostly silly and do not last long enough to slow down the onward course of the drama.
One of his most novel ideas was to integrate the pair of Spanish dancers at the end of Act II into the whole of the party scene rather than have them just arrive on stage, do their number and leave. Sara DeLuis has a mock duel with Flora using red fans, and Antonio Granjero is a shameless flirt. They are quite entertaining and make the scene amusing, as a kind of prelude to the Violetta/Alfredo confrontation. Following an international career, DeLuis has been a highly visible part of the Seattle dance scene for more than 30 years. That experience was evident in everything she did. She has flair and is authenticity. Graniero is an able partner.
Over the past decade or so, Seattle Opera’s second cast, previously known as the Silver cast, has been constantly upgraded, so that in some productions it is nearly the equal of the first, or formerly Gold, cast. It is a remarkable achievement. That was the case this weekend, with the first cast Saturday night and second, Sunday afternoon. Good singing, vivid and alive, abounded at McCaw Hall. There were three changes of cast: Violetta, Alfredo and Germont. Half were local debuts
Nuccia Focile sang the title role Saturday night. She is both a familiar and welcome presence at Seattle Opera. There is warmth and richness to her soprano. These were the most evident in the second and third acts, which displayed the creaminess of her tone and long line. She sang the first act well-enough but nerves made her singing a little stiff, although she displayed a wide range of colors in every measure. Her ability to evoke color was in some ways one of her great accomplishments and one that could be emulated by other members of the cast. Moreover, she is an adept actress, which in “Traviata” is a crucial element in a full realization of the character. She has no difficulty in keeping the focus of the production rightly on her.
Her Alfredo, Dimitri Pittas, is new to Seattle. While not a persuasive actor, he has a bright and penetrating tenor that is appealing and suits the role. However, it is one that could use a greater dynamic range. Charles Taylor makes an emphatic Germont, often too loud. But when he sang more softly his vocalism was more convincing.
Sunday afternoon brought two debuts, one extraordinary. The young Alfredo –at 31 — was Francesco Demuro from Sardinia. The performance was his American debut. It will not be his last in this country, and I hope in Seattle. . Impresarios, both American and European, are quickly jumping on the Demuro bandwagon. His voice, as well as his acting, is pure Italian. You don’t have to understand the language to appreciate the sound. He has voice that is natural with an even register, bottom to the glorious top where high notes bloom. There is the warmth one would expect as well as lyricism and beauty of tone. He also did not have to fudge any of the coloratura work. His Alfredo was both moving and genuine.
Violetta was the Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez who made her house debut last year as Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani.” Her voice is not as big as Focile’s but it has focus and carrying power, most of the time. She can float pianissimos with assurance at the top of her register — no small achievement — and has a gorgeous, perfectly placed high E-flat which she put to good use at the end of Act I. Verdi may not have written it in the score, but it is incredibly effective. Focile, in an interview, distained the use of it. Alas. The middle part of Gutierez’s voice has real substance and she puts it to good use. The Germont, Weston Hurt, sang the role of Alfredo’s father, first angry, then tender, then indignant, then full of regret, with subtle passion and handsome timbre.
There are any number of small roles. They were filled well, Among the singers who should be mentioned are Sarah Heltzel, Jonathan Silvia, Barry Johnson, Byron Ellis, Leodigario del Rosario, Emily Clubb and George Scott.
Under the excellent direction of Beth Kirchhoff, the Seattle Opera Chorus was as usual superb. The orchestra, too, was in fine fettle. Brian Garman, music director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, stepped in at the last minute to replace an ailing conductor. His appearance marks his mainstage debut. I liked his conducting. It was clean and light with wonderfully transparent textures. Although one could quibble occasionally about balance issues, he provided support when necessary and then allowed the orchestra its full measure of glory that Verdi provided.