Syracuse Opera’s season-opening ‘La Traviata’ favors the ears, not the eyes
Singers score well in this sparsely staged production, but acting under Jerald Schweibert’s stage direction leaves much to be desired
Douglas Kinney Frost, the Director of Music at Syracuse Opera, continues to pull the company out of its singing doldrums that undermined performances in recent years. With Frost on the podium, Syracuse Opera offered a well-sung La Traviata that showed his eye for young talent.
Soprano Danielle Pastin took on the enormous challenge of Violetta, the courtesan with consumption. This was only the second time Pastin has sung the part, the first coming in 2009 with the small New Rochelle Opera. She is highly regarded in Santa Fe, an important training ground. She received a big break there last summer going on as Mimi in La Bohème.
She has an attractive, agile voice of medium weight with the ability to fill a large hall with sound. She offered solid interpretations of all her big numbers including the Act 1 Libiamo and the double aria Ah fors e lui and Sempre libera. Her confrontation with Giorgio Germont in Act 2 was powerful, her farewell to life (Addio, del passato) early in Act 3 appropriately anguished. She wisely chose not to take the high-note variant for Sempre libera, but the rest of her singing was assured and professional. The role seems to hold no terrors for her.
Alfredo was sung by Nathaniel Peake, whose resume is more advanced than Pastin’s. He has won a fistful of major awards for young singers, including those from the George London Foundation, the Richard Tucker Foundation, and Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition. He was a 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Winner. He has major roles coming up as Pinkerton in a Houston Grand Opera Butterfly and Tamino in a San Francisco Opera The Magic Flute.
Perhaps because he was a very young Resident Artist with Syracuse Opera in 2008-09, his mentor Frost had a chance to bring him back even though his fee is probably beyond what Syracuse can offer. His loyalty is commendable. He is clearly being groomed for big things as a lyric tenor. Those in the Traviata audience in Syracuse may be able to say, “We heard him when…”
He does, indeed, have a sweet, ingratiating voice when it is not under pressure. But Alfredo is a touch too heavy for him at this point in his career. His top notes are not as secure or as easily produced as they no doubt will become. The conclusion of his wicked cabaletta that ends Act 2 was hasty rather than thrilling. He was at his best in the Act 1 drinking song, his duet with Violetta in Act 3, and in all the sections of lyrical dialogue when he didn’t have to force. He was generally a great pleasure to hear.
Baritone Luis Ledesma, who sang Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, is the most experienced of the three leads. His signature role seems to be Escamillo, but he has a wide-ranging repertoire that embraces Rigoletto and Enrico (in Lucia). His voice doesn’t have the weight of the best rolling Verdi baritones. It lacks resonance and a honeyed quality. But he delivered Di Provenza very well in Act 2 and proved a good foil for Violetta in their confrontation over Alfredo.
All in all, it was a very good night for the singers. Still, the performance failed to touch the heart, and that is because none of the singers yet acts well or received sufficient direction from Jerald Schweibert, who was making his company debut.
Peake mainly stands and delivers, hands at his side. He is a large man, not assured yet on stage and a bit gawky. Not for a minute did Pastin seem consumptive. Admittedly, Violetta is an acting challenge beyond most sopranos, demanding as it does in the course of the evening a jaded courtesan, an ingénue, a coquette, a tragic heroine, and a dying consumptive. Pastin was not really any of these Violettas.
Ledesma didn’t engage either Alfredo or Violetta as he must if these two confrontations are going to galvanize an audience. He was too far away from them and too wooden.
The emotion in this opera came more often from the pit, where Frost led the remaining members of the bankrupt Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, now performing under their own management as Symphony Syracuse. They often played as if their professional lives depend on it, which they probably do.
Rhythmically this performance was very exciting. The orchestra took top honors throughout Act 2, particularly in the gambling scene when Alfredo throws money at Violetta. String figurations were sharp, angry, and persistent.
Frost favored slow tempos in the overture and in Violetta’s more anguished moments, but otherwise he moved proceedings quickly and whipped up a storm in the brass and percussion, both of which had a good night. The cellos provided strong underpinning. While the orchestra often played with great volume, Frost was attentive to his singers and rarely covered them.
The Symphony Syracuse players deserved the many ovations they received from the audience, which clearly misses them in their regular guise as the SSO.
The non-musical aspects of the performance might have come across more effectively if the sets had not been so minimalist. Indeed, this was close to a black box production. The stage was framed with black curtains left and right. The back wall had a light blue curtain for Act 1, a mauve curtain for Act 2, and black for Act 3. Lighting provided whatever atmosphere there was. Props in all three acts were a few tables, chairs and a bed with pillows. In various arrangements these were meant to suggest everything from Violetta’s Paris apartment to her country house and Flora’s salon. This is a lot to ask of an audience.
Costumes were mostly black tie for the men and mid-19th century ball gowns for the women. The gowns added some color to the proceedings, but this was a production whose dominant color was black.
This might have worked if stage director Schweibert had been able to do more with his singers. In the event, however, the audience was left to fill in the many blanks from its memory bank of past Traviatas. Schweibert’s main virtue was to deliver an economical staging that did little harm. That is a valuable skill in this period of economic depression for the arts.
The audience at the Crouse-Hinds Concert Theater in the Civic Center was large and filled with young people. One hopes they will learn that opera can be more emotionally engaging than this Traviata.
What: Verdi’s La Traviata
Who: Syracuse Opera
When: 8 p.m. Friday, October 21, 2011
Final performance: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse.
Tickets: $18 to $165
Contact: Box office: 476-7372, http://syracuseopera.com