TCO ‘La Traviata’ is a feast for the ear and eye

Reviewed by Tony Villecco

Attending Tri-Cities Opera’s final dress rehearsal Wednesday (Feb. 9) for Giuseppe Verdi’s perennial favorite, La Traviata, I did not believe this production could surpass the excellence of last fall’s Cosi Fan Tutte. I was wrong. What maestro John Mario Di Costanzo has done is to, literally, transform the opera’s orchestra to such a high level of playing that it’s hard to imagine these already fine musicians could sound even better.

Di Costanzo has an innate ability to draw out the finer nuances of Verdi’s rich score, from the haunting prelude (played beautifully by the strings and brass) to his attention to detail with every soloist and choral moment. He “breathes” with his singers, giving them room for ample interpretive moments and deep artistic liberty with Verdi’s riveting music.

As Violetta Valéry, the operas doomed heroine, soprano Victoria Cannizzo was a stand-out. Vocally, she had no difficulty with the heavy demands of the role. Her coloratura was assured and her lovely pianissimo notes floated over the auditorium like a veiled mist.  The famous “Sempre libera” was a mark of artistry. Strikingly beautiful, Cannizzo captured the genesis of Violetta’s hopeful but tragic circumstance — to love and to be loved.

Tenor Kirk Dougherty looked like a Greek God as her naïve lover, Alfredo Germont. His tone has become even richer and warmer than in previous hearings, and he has developed an Italianate “cry” in the voice that showed a great emotional connection to the role. His second-act aria,”De miei bollenti spiriti,” was striking and he even sang the difficult cabaletta, “O mio rimorso,” which tenors often omit.

Veteran baritone Guido LeBrón brought his acclaimed interpretation of the elder Germont to vivid reality. LeBrón has a natural and arresting stage presence. His delineation of the father’s misunderstanding and eventual remorse was palpable, and his strong rich voice had no difficulties with the role. Particularly moving was the famous “Di Provenza il mar.” Another highlight was the moving duet “Ditte alla giovine” with Cannizzo.

The smaller supporting roles were all cast well, especially ? Lee as Violetta’s vixen friend, Flora. Tenor Brister Hay sang the Marchese with Christina Kompar as Violetta’s maid, Annina; Garry Leonberger as Gastone and John Rozzoni as the Baron. As usual, bass-baritone Will Roberts took advantage of a basically limited role in his portrayal of Doctor Grenvil.

Stage director Laura Alley did a marvelous job in small touches that depicted both the blossoming love and ensuing tragedy. Particularly effective was a picnic scene and, in the final act, Violetta’s realization of her failing health when she pulls off a sheet covering her bedroom mirror.

The lovely period costumes were coordinated by Arlene Lyon. The handsome sets were designed by Robert Little with equally effective mood lighting by Joe Beck. As usual, the fine TCO chorus, drilled by John Isenberg, was exceptional.

Performances of La Traviata, in Italian with English surtitles, will be 8 p.m. Friday (Feb. 11) and 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 13) at The Forum, 236 Washington St., Binghamton. Details: www.tricitiesopera.com; www.broomeforum.com. Box office: 772-0400.

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6 Responses to "TCO ‘La Traviata’ is a feast for the ear and eye"

  1. octavian1

    I attended a performance, rather than a rehearsal, of Tri-Cities Opera’s production of “La Traviata” this weekend, and, while I enjoyed myself, I differ somewhat with the reviewer’s opinions. I thought the orchestra was every bit as good as it has always been, despite occasional intonation issues with the strings and woodwinds. I also felt that some of the tempi were too rushed in a few places at the expense of the inherent drama in the text, and I would also have welcomed more interpretive flexibility at key emotional moments. But overall it was a very adequate interpretation.

    Victoria Cannizzo, in her first attempt at this hugely demanding role, was very good. It is a beautifully colored voice that handled both the coloratura and dramatic demands quite well, and is likely only to get better.

    This was by far the best I have ever heard Kirk Dougherty sound. Despite straining a bit on the high notes in the earlier acts, he had relaxed and sang a very fine last act. His acting too has improved, but the “Italianate cry” referred to was used far too often and not always to the best effect.

    I am a huge fan of Guido LeBron, but I do not think his robust, stentorian baritone voice is as well-suited to the character and music of the elder Germont as it is to other roles I have heard him perform (such as his wonderful Scarpia in last year’s “Tosca”). That is not to say it was not really well sung however; and his dramatic intuition makes everyone around him better –- I’m glad he was back. The maturity, experience and wisdom he brings to a role is incalculable.

    I was disappointed with many of the smaller roles –- often those singers were very difficult to hear and dramatically ineffectual. Notable exceptions were U Lee as Flora and Christina Kompar as Annina. The small chorus (just 21 singers, including resident artists) was musically precise and produced a good sound –- kudos to the chorus master. I would like to have heard the bigger choral sound that only a larger chorus can produce.

    I found the set, costumes and the staging to be the greatest disappointments. It was a very basic, painted set –- only the appropriately drab and dimly lit last act seemed to work. The chorus costumes were routine, with awkward splashes of color, and I would have expected Violetta to look more “belle of the ball” in Act I, but she wore a relatively generic white gown (at least that’s how it looked from the house). I was startled that I disliked the staging –- I really was expecting more from this director. I didn’t see the necessity for a picnic on the floor/lawn (on a distractingly bright red blanket that drew all the focus) when a perfectly good terrace was available just three feet away. And, when the elder Germont cries out for his son to “Wait!” at the end of Act II, Scene i, I would expect him to run/hurry (after the high note, of course!) and not simply walk off the stage. Choral staging can be a challenge in a lot of operas, but here the chorus most often merely stood still and sang even when the text suggested otherwise (for example, I saw little to no “choral outrage” expressed after Alfredo threw his winnings at Violetta in Act II, Scene ii).

    Before anybody draws the conclusion that I did NOT enjoy my time spent in the theater, let me assure you that by and large I DID. I’ve simply tried to go into greater (some will doubtless say “negative”) detail here as a counterpoint to a review that would give the impression that the production was utterly flawless. It was a good production, with much to admire, but it was not completely perfect.

  2. Perfect example of how different people can see the same thing and come to differing conclusions. In my case, I personally agree more with Mr. Villecco’s assessment than that of octavian1.
    Granted, it was not a perfect production by any means, but then few are. I do however disagree on some key points with octavian1:

    The orchestra has sounded very different since Maestro Di Costanzo’s arrival in the fall. There is a freshness to the conducting that has been missing for some time, and the overall blend between those in the pit and performers on stage is perhaps the most balanced since the early ’90s when Maestros Hibbitt and Skrabalak were still at their best. As far as tempi, I, for one, was thrilled to be spared the overly interpretive tempi of many conductors (and the often lethargic tempi of the past TCO productions of the same opera) and hear something much closer to what is actually written on the page.

    Ms. Cannizzo was wonderful in the role and, given her age, I do also agree it will only get better with age and experience. But to have accomplished such a fine dramatic portrayal (as opposed to a specifically vocal accomplishment) at such a young age is almost assuredly due to astute work on her part in conjunction with both the conductor and the stage director.

    Mr. Dougherty I also agree has improved considerable in his stage manner and singing. I look forward to hearing him again soon.

    Mr. LeBron is a local treasure and I have thrilled in hearing him perform for more than two decades at this point. I loved the fact that he showed great vocal restraint in his portrayal of the elder Germont; there was a time when he relied solely on his “robust, stentorian baritone” and its sheer volume instead of concentrating on nuance and subtly. I will rush to see him again any time he turns to the TCO stage.

    I also disagree with the assessment that the chorus was too small. I have been to operas all over the US and throughout Europe and a 24-person chorus (even in some of the larger houses) is standard these days — and MORE than sufficient on a stage the size we have at The Forum. I do not miss the days where I had to strain to pick out the lead characters because the stage was over-filled with bodies as was the case for far too long with TCO productions. I, for one, prefer quality not quantity. I also saw several convincing stage vignettes of chorus members going on throughout all the scenes — enough to keep my interest but not enough to pull focus from the lead characters. To me, that is the sign of a good director who knows when to edit instead of trying to overfill the stage with unnecessary action and bodies. And some of the stage choices I thought worked and some did not — but in what production is that not the case? Overall, however, I thought Ms. Alley did a wonderful job of focusing the drama throughout — and I for one hope she will be returning in the future. I would love to see more of her work, having read some of the things she has done elsewhere. (I should also note I saw her “Otello” at Syracuse Opera some years back–and LOVED it!)

    As far as I can tell, the costumes were the same as the last time they did the show — in fact they may well be from several times before that. What I saw was still very nice, and I thought Violetta looked lovely throughout, and everyone else looked appropriated dressed. Hopefully the next time they do it, though, there will be new costumes.

    And was octavian1 expecting a Zeffirelli set on stage? Again, I was happy to see something a bit simpler and more in proportion for our own Forum stage and more in keeping with the trend of opera companies large and small going in that same direction. As an educated theater goer, I for one do not need a literal door or window in front of me to indicate every single structural element. I, for one, would even like to see more conceptual sets since then the focus is even MORE on the performers and not on the scenery. That, of course, is just a personal opinion — much as is octavian1’s for something more “traditional.”

    I do not necessarily believe octavian1 was being “negative,” but yet again different people can see the exact same things in very different ways. We both saw a show we enjoyed but saw it through very different eyes. I expect the “truth” is somewhere in the middle as with all things.

    One final note: I convinced several friends to come with me this time to this show — their FIRST at TCO, believe it or not — and they have already purchased tickets to the next. Obviously, they enjoyed the show just as much as I did, flaws (real or perceived) and all. And what is important is that we all keep supporting this absolute jewel in our midst … and keep the conversations going. Ultimately, that is what will keep it fresh and alive!

  3. octavian1

    Bcartslover: I don’t think we disagree too much, and, as you correctly assert, different people will hear and see different things. A couple of things that I would like to make clearer:

    As far as tempi go, I was fine with a good deal of what I heard (as I often was previously), but I truly would have preferred that SOME of the tempi allowed for just a little more space.

    I’ve heard that Ms. Cannizzo continues to study voice with Peter Sicilian, former TCO vocal instructor and stage director, and I’m going to guess that she almost certainly began her study of such a daunting role last year with Maestros Hibbitt and Skrabalak as well. They doubtless also contributed to the high caliber of her performance. It was an excellent first time in the role, better than a number of seasoned performers I’ve heard elsewhere.

    For me, it’s simply a matter of preferences with the role of the elder Germont. I love Mr. LeBron’s voice and enjoy all of his performances. I simply prefer a more lyric approach to that role that is not inherent in his voice.

    I’d also like to amend my statement about the smaller roles to include Garry Leonberger’s Gastone among those that were notable. I guess we will have to agree to disagree about the chorus and the staging. No harm in that.

    I have seen many performances of this opera in houses large and small, both at TCO and elsewhere, but I confess I did not see the most recent previous production here. If those were the same sets and costumes, I would have said the same thing then. I agree with you in hoping that a future production will include a new set and costumes. This painted set (especially Act II, scene i) just looked to be something that one would expect more for a comic opera. And I personally would actually be fine with a more conceptual set (or even a virtual set) for the reasons you stated, as well as for the fact that it would provide more space for movement on the small stage.

    If I were to take Mr. Villecco’s review literally, I WOULD have been expecting a production worthy of Zeffirelli. I know better, and was not expecting that level of production values, but the original review certainly implied a level of perfection in every area that is darned near unachievable. My comments were intended to counterbalance the original review, as I have never seen a production anywhere that was completely beyond reproach, and this was no exception. The truth does indeed lie somewhere in between.

  4. I am delighted that my review has prompted such an entertaining and stimulating discussion regarding the “Traviata” production. You both make some very valid and wonderful points, and as with any criticism, no one will completely agree on a single perspective.

    I grew up in this area and was raised as a young boy and teen singing in the opera chorus at Tri-Cities Opera. Suffice it to say I saw many singers come and go, some good and some not so good. Certainly the opera served as one of my most delightful experiences growing up but as the company matured and people moved on, bigger changes were inevitable. These latest changes, though controversial, have NOT hindered the quality of recent productions. As far as my trying to assert this was a “Zeffirelli” production, I do not believe he was even mentioned in my review, and frankly, some of the artistic achievements Mr. Zeffirelli has presented have certainly not all been to my liking.

    I cannot answer to the performances that you attended, but I can say, for my taste, knowledge and years of opera going, that the final dress I attended was damn near perfect as far as I was concerned. This is considering first the age of these singers, the time in preparation and the size of this opera company compared to other regional houses.

    The later years saw some unacceptable conducting by both Maestr’s Hibbitt and Skrabalak. Tempi dragged to the point where I could feel the discomfort of the singers while trying to sustain phrases and develop a character under obvious discomfort. While I am not putting Maestro Di Costanzo on a pedestal, he certainly has re-invigorated the orchestra to a whole new level, and his sensitivity to the needs of his singers is laudable.

    Whether Miss Cannizzo worked with Mr. Sicilian and Hibbitt and Skrabalek is irrelevant to me. I based my opinions — again, my opinions — on what I saw and heard and the fact she is so young yet so naturally sang with full conviction and commitment. This, I am certain, cannot be taught or coached. You either have it or you don’t. But being in a company that now has a higher level of artistic integrity and new ideas, new challenges, new ideas, most assuredly did help her interpretation and drive to excellence.

    Let us continue to have open discussion, and both embrace and welcome such differences of opinion. As art is meant to provoke emotion, may it continue to do so in addition to enriching our lives.

  5. I am in total agreement with Mr. Villeco’s assessment that the recent changes have NOT hindered the productions in any way; I and many I have spoken with who have seen the last two productions believe they have only improved the quality of what we have seen onstage. As far as I can see, this show (and “Cosi” before it) proved that such changes have not only made an immediate impact on what we as an audience see on stage, but that it may have been necessary long before now.

    Attending opening night, I can honestly say it has been years since I have seen the audience so full, not to mention the number of YOUNGER patrons for a change. I have been attending literally for decades at this point, and what I have observed in the past two shows is a most definite change in approach both on stage on in the pit. I greatly admire the work done by the previous artistic staff — and Mr. Savoca before them — but to my eyes and ears and to many others, TCO was turning into a museum, not a vital performing arts organization. Again, this is my opinion, but I daresay it would be consistent with the vast majority of people who were there that evening — and I base that on the conversations I heard during intermissions from young and old alike. Again I weigh in much closer to Mr. Villeco’s assessment of the show and the overall experience.

    My “Zeffirelli” comment directed towards octavian1 was a rhetorical one. I do not know exactly where he was expecting something more grandiose given Mr. Villeco’s original assessment that the set was “handsome” and the costumes “lovely.” I was neither disappointed nor blown away by them; I thought the description was quite accurate on both counts and that they were quite nice given the size of our house and what I assume to be TCO’s budget given the area, size of the company and current economic state. I have seen far bigger companies put MUCH worse on stage, believe me.

    Mr. Villeco may not hold Maestro DiCostanzo on a pedestal, but what a change one hears now in the pit! I too, sat through FAR too many operas in past season where it was all I could do to keep my eyes open during certain passages due to the lugubrious tempi. You could see singers struggling on stage and people — quite literally — falling asleep in their seats. I must admit on more than one occasion, I myself could not make it through to the end of a show. (I should note I have walked out of Met and Convent Garden performances as well just so you do not think I am only critical of our local product.) In my estimation what Maestro DiCostanzo has accomplished in a few short months is nothing short of remarkable — and it shows both with the overall sound of the orchestra and in the interaction with the on-stage performers. That, quite simply, is unmistakable to a discerning eye and ear.

    I will take one exception with Mr. Villeco’s response above: Yes, great singers are born, but even the greatest (by their own admission) require adequate training and coaching to fully accomplish a convincing character on stage both vocally and dramaturgically. It is obvious that Ms. Cannizzo possesses the necessary natural gifts and commitment to assay such a demanding role at such a young age with as much aplomb as she displayed, but to assume that it happened without the direct input of the Maestro and Ms. Alley would be to discount their obvious influence on what we saw on stage as a whole. That would be the same as saying Serafin and Visconti had no direct influence on Callas (a more advanced example, granted, but one with which I am sure you are familiar.)

    I do agree with octvaian1 that Mr. Leonberger’s Gastone vocally was also a bit about the cut. I especially liked Ms. Lee’s Flora; I look forward to hearing her again soon. Also, since I was seated in the mezzanine, I did not really have difficulty in hearing any of the singers except in a few isolated spots; I have had many similar experiences elsewhere. Some voices are just larger than others.

    I too am happy that the review has generated some discussion regarding the actual artistic merits of what is now on TCO’s stage as opposed to all the hand-wringing and vitriol in the press that went on after all the recent changes to the company last year. Again, I am thrilled by what I have seen so far and look forward to seeing what is in store with the next opera — and beyond.

  6. Please do not misunderstand my original comments regarding Victoria’s exceptional Violetta. I was addressing Octavavian1’s assertion she had worked on the role prior with Hibbitt, Sicilian and Skrabalak. She may have, this is true. I am more inclined to believe, as a member of a company with new faces (specifically Maestro Di Costanzo and stage director Laura Alley), that this is where she formed and crystalized her wonderful interpretation of Verdi’s lost heroine. Thank you all for your wonderful and reflective comments.