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Traviata's Sunday cast not to be missed
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Traviata's Sunday cast not to be missed

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Verdi's La Traviata
at Seattle Opera
McCaw Hall
through October 31


As most readers know, Seattle Opera usually presents two casts of each production: the opening-night cast of "big name" singers, and the Sunday matinee/Friday night cast of less well-known, usually younger artists. It sometimes happens that the "second cast" gives a far better show than the more expensive singers.

Such is certainly the case with the current production of Verdi's La Traviata. (Literal translation: the woman who strayed.) All three of the major roles were superior in all ways on Sunday to the Saturday cast. Mind you, the opening night was more than competent and was a good show. But on Sunday everything caught fire; the experience became memorable and indeed something to write home about.

Adding to the effect were the attractive sets and costumes, rented from San Francisco Opera. This production was set in the proper time period, namely around 1850. Both of the party scenes were spectacular, with the second act particularly effective in looking deeper than the actual depth of the stage. (The principal dancers had considerably more snap on Sunday than on the previous evening.) Lavish costumes and effective lighting made for a visual feast.

Special mention should be made of the exhilarating conducting of Brian Garman, making his Seattle Opera debut on the main stage. Garman, music director of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, demonstrated superb control of both the pit and the stage. He kept everything moving well, but also slowed down for emotional emphasis when appropriate. He was especially sensitive to Nuccia Focile's need for extra rests between phrases in Act One.

And therein lay one of the big failings of the opening night cast. Nuccia Focile, a Seattle favorite, is perhaps the ideal voice for lighter roles such as Nedda in I Pagliacci. But Violetta is no lightweight! Act One requires vocal skills of a coloratura with easy high notes, while Acts Two and Three need a voice with weight and "gravitas," which Focile lacks. She was clearly afraid of both the coloratura and especially of the high notes. She had to take big rests between phrases, thus destroying both dramatic and musical effects.

A great Violetta must revel in those high notes, tossing them off with defiant, if hysterical, glee. On Sunday, Eglise GutiƩrrez did just that, adding a spot-on E above high C to end Act One, leaving the audience in wild amazement. More important, she put the drama into the voice. Easily as fine a visual actress as Focile, she used Verdi's genius for molding a vocal line to dramatic effect, something Focile seldom managed. GutiƩrrez had a much warmer voice, capable of more power for the big moments, and a much broader tonal palette with which to show emotion. She moved us, all the while showering us in the vocal splendor of her perfectly produced, burnished brown tone. One can only hope we get to see her in Seattle again soon.

While this opera lives or dies by the soprano singing Violetta, her lover, Alfredo, is important too. Tenor Dimitri Pittas (debut) sang very well Saturday night, but he was awkward on the stage. He seldom modulated his attractive sound to show emotion and musical sensitivity. The Sunday Alfredo, Francesco Demuro, making his North American debut, sang with more expression and nuance. His acting and attractive appearance helped make Alfredo's passion effective. Demuro's voice is not beefy, yet every note carried into the house with ease and eloquence. A slight suggestion of a sob added Italianate drama to appropriate moments. His tops were easily produced, and his attractive tone was remarkably consistent throughout.

The second-act confrontation between Violetta and Alfredo's father is for many the highlight of the opera. Here emotion in the voice, as opposed to mere physical gestures, is paramount. The opening night Giorgio of Charles Taylor was loud, but lacked both nuance and bottom notes. Weston Hurt, making his debut on Sunday, excelled with ample volume and a much warmer, more expressive voice. His tone at times suggested the rounded ease of Gordon Hawkins or Leonard Warren.

Seattle Opera filled the lesser roles with excellent singing actors. Standouts included the Gastone of Leodigario del Rosario, Dr. Grenvil sung by Seattle Opera stalwart Byron Ellis, and most especially the Marquis d'Obigny of Jonathan Silvia.

La Traviata is one of the greatest operas for both its story and its vocal demands. In its Sunday/Friday cast, Seattle Opera showed just how great it can be. (For a superb DVD of this opera, I recommend the Los Angeles production with Renee Fleming, Rolando Villazon, and Renato Bruson.)

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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