From the initial rise of the curtain on La Traviata, the Dallas audience knew they were in for a lavish affair. To say the production from the Florida Grand Opera was beautiful would be quite the understatement. But as grandiose as the sets were, for a story like La Traviata they were in perfect taste, and the shock value of “oohs and ahhs” with each curtain rise more than made up for the pauses and intermissions. But we won’t be spending too much time on the staging, as there were simply too many other great things to talk about.
In Traviata, Verdi not only gave us memorable arias for the stars, he also gave us great chorus moments, and the Dallas Opera Chorus led by Alexander Rom was quite stellar. In fact, the chorus within the masquerade ball scene in Act II was one of the more memorable moments of the production, and some of that credit also goes to choreographer and principal dancer Rosa Mercedes.
The cast as a whole was more than able to take on the vocal gymnastics of Verdi, and along with the finely honed orchestra under Marco Guidarini, the Dallas audience witnessed a reference production of the opera. The nice thing about Traviata’s minimal recitatives is that it doesn’t take long before each character gets into a major showcase aria. Alfredo’s leadoff aria of the The “Brindisi” drinking song gave a glimpse of tenor James Valenti’s strengths of diction, range, and technical skills. His phrasing however, always tended to lean towards the emotionally distressed side of things, which made for an odd performance of the De’ miei bollenti spiriti at the opening of Act II since it’s an aria about happiness. Valenti came into his own in his fights with his father and in the third act in his duets with Violetta, where his tendencies in phrasing not only worked, they helped to bring out the scenes.
Alfredo’s father Gergio, performed by Laurent Naouri (making his Dallas Opera debut), was certainly a pleasant surprise. Not only did he have a powerful voice, he had a powerful presence — one that darkened the stage, in a good way. His character is one that frustrates you as he makes you feel both mad and sorry for him, and Naouri brought those emotions to the forefront — especially within his Pura siccome un angelo aria. The interplay between Gergio and Violetta made for some of the best moments of the production. They were so completely in sync with one another that they constantly kept the audience enraptured, and enabled you to get lost in the moments.
Yet what took this production over the top was not the set, Alfredo, or Gergio, no this performance hinged on the main character — “the fallen woman” herself — Violetta; and in her American debut, soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu was more than up to the challenge. It would be easy to get caught up in the opera-world’s obsession with finding today’s “Verdi Sopranos” and to debate whether Papatanasiu was “spinto” enough for Verdi, but in doing so, you might have missed pure magic at the Winspear Opera House on Friday night. Luckily, I don’t think many missed it. The jump to standing ovation and hooting and hollering at the sight of Papatanasiu at the end of the production was instantaneous. It was as if the stars aligned and she gave, well, a perfect run through of a work from one of the most demanding and challenging vocal composers in musical history.
Papatanasiu seemed to be in constant control, and even the moments that can lead to a little “screeching” by many sopranos came through as if it was the easiest thing in the world. While not the largest voice, she never got lost in the, at times, thick orchestrations. In fact, what was most amazing were the times when she seemed to meld with the instruments as they accompanied her. The way she went through some of the vocal gymnastics with ease, and shaped her lines to bring out the audience’s emotions was not only stunning, it was breath-taking. Traviata can be a tad ridiculous in its storyline and plot, but on Friday night Papatanasiu made it come to life. Accompanied by the towering sets, the wonderfully over-the-top costuming, the dancers, and many other fine voices, Papatanasiu helped to put La Traviata in the running for the best production of the Dallas Opera season.