Giuseppe Verdi, Composer; Original Libretto by Francisco Maria Piave
English Version by Donald Pippin
Pocket Opera, in Co-Production with Cinnabar Theatre
With cheeks flushed against a snow-white, pale face, Violetta Valéry slowly enters pressed against the strong arm of her devoted servant, Annina, who serves as a needed crutch. Gingerly, painfully, Violetta settles unto a chaise lounge almost within reach of the audience on her three sides as the eleven-piece orchestra just a few feet beyond serenades her and us with an Overture both familiar and beautiful.
After a brief nap, she rises with much assistance and dresses in elegant, 1920’s evening attire, with a face that writhes in pain and a body that appears it might break into pieces at any moment. But as the music continues to build and as party guests arrive giving her clear looks of worry about her fragile condition, Violetta purposefully rises like a Phoenix and sings in notes pulsating and vibrant, “I’ve discovered the cure I prefer: Live for today, laugh and forget.”
In the intimate setting of Mountain View Performing Arts Center’s Second Stage, Giuseppe Verdi’s much-loved, oft-performed La Traviata that has graced globally the world’s grandest stages now is being performed as if in one’s living room. It only takes these few, initial notes from Violetta for us to realize this is a small-stage Traviata in arena size only. In a co-production with Cinnabar Theatre, Pocket Opera’s La Traviata touts a world-class cast of principals, a big-voiced chorus of ten, and an overall production that far excels what one might expect in a setting where one would usually attend chamber concerts, but not full-blown operas. The result is a La Traviata that is perhaps the most accessible, impactful, and emotional version of this classic story that I personally have ever attended and one I highly recommend to both first timers and Verdi aficionados.
As Violetta, Michelle Drever not only brings big-stage vocals whose power and potential to impress only increase as the scenes unfold, but she is also a fabulous actress providing an authenticity to her Violetta that is at times almost breathtaking. Even when Violetta is at her liveliest as a hostess or a partygoer, we notice that she needs to reach out and seek momentary support from a nearby chair, pausing for a split second as a grimace of internal discomfort from her ongoing fight with tuberculosis shows in a pursed lip or a suddenly flickering eyebrow. But as she alternates waves of weakness and renewed strength, her Violetta never fails to sing with notes nothing less than celestial in their soprano clarity and sheer beauty.
Likewise, the young bourgeois, Alfredo Germont– who has been without her knowledge romantically captured by this courtesan that is the toast of Paris’ socialites –must also only intone a few notes of greetings to provide a welcome glimpse of his shining, tenor vocals. When he is persuaded by Violetta’s guests to sing a brindisi (a drinking song), Sergio González as Alfredo quickly demonstrates his impressive control of vocal dynamics and pace that allow his initial message for Violetta of “a pledge of love is forever” slowing to sink into a persona who claims to him, “I only live for pleasure.”
But even as she tries to put on a good front to Alfredo that she really does not care for him, his gorgeous notes of passion and tenor brilliance reach out to surround her with a “love, total love, born of fire and ecstasy.” As Violetta begins to succumb finally to his entreaties with her own notes that scale up and down the musical staff in swelling pulses, the two fill the air with a musical passion that seems to reach out and hug in back-and-forth harmony before the two would-be lovers finally share a first kiss. How could Verdi have hoped for anything more than such a scene of romance playing out almost within an arm’s reach of us as audience?
As Act Two opens three months later in Violetta’s country home outside Paris, the two, half-dressed lovers cavort playfully about with kisses and hugs, with Alfredo singing in a display of his tenor prowess, “In paradise, we soar above the starry sky … together.” But a discovery by Alfredo that Violetta is about to sell many of her possessions in order to continue this lifestyle in the country transforms Alfredo’s manner and vocals. He decries in a voice as beautifully stunning as it is emotionally startling his “cry of wounded pride and honor” for a “shameful debt I shall repay.”
After Alfredo leaves for Paris to make amends and ensure Violetta does carry out her financial sacrifice for him, his father, Giorgio Germont, arrives to persuade Violetta to give up her love for his son so that his other offspring, a daughter, can marry without being disgraced that her brother is the lover of Paris’ most infamous courtesan. As astutely stage-directed by Elly Lichenstein, what follows is perhaps this production’s most engrossing, captivating scene. Igor Vieira’s naturally strong, rich, and expressive baritone warns Violetta that “your past will rise to haunt you.” Violetta admits her regretful past – “my remorse” – with Michelle Drever vividly projecting in one achingly sustained note Violetta’s shame of that sordid history. Her Violetta, however, initially rejects his request to let go of Alfredo, singing with firm determination that “you are asking for the impossible.”
The elder Germont begins repeated rounds of persuasive volleys to “hear a father’s plea” for a daughter whose “fate is in your hands.” Igor Vieira employs at times single notes separated by brief pauses as he hammers the message that “the day will come when [Alfredo’s] heated blood runs colder.” The ensuing back-and-forth between the two becomes for both Germont and Violetta increasingly mutually sad and loving, with their final resolution sung in two voices blending in a haunting harmony.
As the story progresses for two more acts toward inevitable tragedy, others in the cast have their own moments to add to the story and to leave impressive memories of their musical abilities. As Violetta’s trusted doctor, Grenvil, Gene Wright brings his soothing, comforting bass vocals to her dying bedside. As Alfredo’s friend, Gastone, Eric Levintow only has a few sung lines, leaving us with the wish for more of this exceptionally clear-voiced tenor. Lori Willis is Violetta’s loyal and loving friend, Flora, whose fine mezzo soprano at times needed a bit more power to project its message to match her excellent acting abilities.
Throughout, when the ensemble appears and sings their revelry, the ten voices harmonize with impressive gusto and gaiety and with a presence like a chorus twice their number. Likewise, Mary Chun’s music direction of both singers and the on-stage orchestra is much worthy of praise. Even in the small setting, the balance between singers and musicians is never out-of-sorts. Particularly impressive at several points are the violin solos of Yasushi Ogura, particularly when she is in duet with a singer such as Violetta.
As with most production of La Traviata, the final scene between the returning Alfredo and the dying Violetta is the one audience members will take home with sighs of sadness. When Violetta sings with quickened pace and a suddenly uplifted voice of a final and false hope that she is cured, we want too to believe it might be possible. But as she collapses into Alfredo’s arms, we at least have the assurance that we have witnessed a La Traviata that in this Pocket Opera offering (in co-production with Cinnabar Theatre), has provided us a special, musical memory long to be relished and remembered.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet Production
La Traviata will continue in production by Pocket Opera July 17, 2022, at Hillside Club in Berkeley, CA and July 24, 2022, at Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Tickets are available at http://pocketopera.org .
Photo Credits: Cinnabar Theatre