HGO cast delivers the passion if not the subtlety of Verdi’s “Traviata”

Sat Oct 22, 2022 at 1:05 pm
By Steven Brown
Angel Blue and Matthew White star in Verdi’s La Traviata at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

Few operas depend on their central characters as much as Verdi’s La Traviata does on Violetta, the ailing courtesan throwing herself into her last chance at love. No subplot changes the focus from her collision with respectable society’s demands. Only two other main characters, Alfredo, Violetta’s lover, and his father, share the stage, and they’re defined by their reactions to her.

Soprano Angel Blue, who plays Violetta in Houston Grand Opera’s production of La Traviata—which opened Friday at Wortham Theater Center—doesn’t capture every facet of the role. But she sings with a richness and generosity that exudes passion, and she brings a special heft to moments where many sopranos have to tread carefully.

Opera companies often opt for singers who can relish the acrobatics and abandon of Violetta’s Act 1 showpiece, “Sempre libera.” HGO went that route with its 2017 production, casting Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova—who offered much more than pyrotechnics, to be sure.

Blue’s strength lies less in agility and brilliant high notes, and more in the sheer warmth she brings to Verdi’s music. Her voice has particular heft in its middle and lower ranges, where some of Violetta’s most dramatic moments land—and where many sopranos oriented toward the stratosphere have less to offer.

On Friday, Blue came into her own in “Ah! fors e lui,” Violetta’s first expression of the “fever of love” welling up inside her. The more the music turned toward broad, ardent lyricism, the more richly Blue’s voice poured out. That held true all evening: Time and again, Blue enabled Verdi’s lyricism to blossom, conjuring up Violetta’s passions along with it.

She made her way through “Sempre libera” more deliberately and she did so without the unwritten but traditional high E-flat at the end. Rather than evoking the no-holds-barred pursuit of pleasure, the aria came across more as an expression of I-can-do-this resolve—which is less exciting but does make a point, if perhaps inadvertently.

Violetta’s burst of desperation at Germont lies too low for some sopranos to make much of an impact, but Blue was in her element, and the fast, jagged phrases packed a wallop. Violetta’s outcry at the scene’s climax, after she has agreed to send her beloved Alfredo away, cemented the impact.

Yet for all the eloquence Blue lavished on Verdi’s melodies, she lacked one thing: the ability to sing pianissimo. That took some of the pathos, not to mention the magic, from Violetta’s most poignant moments. Her Act 3 farewell to life,  “Addio, del passato”—of which Blue sang only one stanza—captured less of Violetta’s resignation because its ending didn’t float aloft as a whisper.

Actually, singing with delicacy wasn’t anyone’s strong suit Friday, though Blue’s fellow principals certainly offered other Verdian strengths.

Tenor Matthew White brought a light, bright voice to the role of Alfredo. In the opening party scene, he delivered the drinking song neatly, as he did Alfredo’s first declaration of love to Violetta.

But White’s singing didn’t go beyond that, with little nuance or sweetness; it remained one-dimensional and a bit bland. Only in “Parigi, o cara,” Violetta and Alfredo’s Act 3 duet—their vision of a better life that isn’t to be—did White finally treat Verdi to a bit more tenderness. He did muster a more assertive tone for Alfredo’s big moments in Act 2—the climactic section of Alfredo’s aria and, even more, his denunciation of Violetta when he thinks she has jilted him.

Ukrainian baritone Andrei Kymach, in his U.S. debut, brought a forceful and focused voice to the role of Germont. The climax of Germont’s “Di provenza” rang out imposingly. After Alfredo humiliated Violetta at Flora’s party, Germont’s denunciation of his son’s ungallant behavior  exuded fatherly anger.

But Kymach tended to sing full-throttle or close to it even when that didn’t suit the music or scene. At the start of Germont’s Act 2 scene with Violetta, Kymach’s voice was unsteady when Germont sang of his innocent daughter back home—perhaps because Kymach simply hadn’t gotten settled into the performance. As the scene unfolded, Kymach generally sounded stern, if not fierce, even when Germont was supposed to be growing more sympathetic to Violetta’s sacrifice.

The singers in smaller roles adroitly filled out the picture of Parisian partying and, in Act 3, Violetta’s sickroom.

The revelers—including Emily Treigle as Flora Bervoix, Kelly Markgraf as Marchese d’Obigny and Navasard Hakobyan as Baron Douphol—cut lively figures. Renée Richardson and Cory McGee were altogether gentler in the finale as, respectively, Violetta’s servant Annina and Doctor Grenvil.

The HGO Chorus’ crisp, light singing brought out the fun of the party scenes—especially the play-acting about fortune tellers and matadors during Flora’s soiree. And the group let loose forcefully in the general condemnation of Alfredo that climaxed the scene.

Shaping that scene’s final ensemble may have been the prime contribution of conductor Matthew Aucoin—who is better known as a composer. With Aucoin’s guidance, the HGO Orchestra, chorus and soloists began the ensemble quietly, then swelled, and Aucoin paced the dramatic pauses that separate the full group’s outcries from those of a smaller set. Otherwise, he brought out the vitality and transparency of Verdi’s score.

While HGO premiered director Arin Arbus’ production in 2017, this was really everyone’s first time to see it in toto. 

Five years ago, the company had hurriedly set up a temporary theater after Hurricane Harvey flooded Wortham, and the inclined stage floor was all it could accommodate of designer Riccardo Hernandez’s set. The complete vista included a simple, curved wall that encloses Violetta’s home and, for her place in the country, two smaller walls painted with trees and greenery—evoking indoors and outdoors at once. One wall’s light sconces remained unlit.

Arbus’ staging included sensibly laid out interactions between principals and lively party scenes, plus a few visceral strokes. When Germont’s first pleas didn’t calm the hotheaded Alfredo, Germont slapped him; Alfredo, confronting Violetta at Flora’s party, hurled her to the floor. 

Nevertheless, the staging did turn gimmicky near the end. Despite Violetta’s failing strength, she got up and roamed around the stage, her arms lifted heavenward—for no evident purpose other than to cast big shadows on the wall. It was a dose of hokum amid the tragedy.

La Traviata runs through November 8. houstongrandopera.org

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