‘La Traviata’ soars on big emotions and Verdi’s intricate coloratura

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Soprano Elizabeth Cabellaro singing the role of Valéry in Madison Opera’s production of La Traviata, a role she’s reprising in a new production for Florentine Opera. -Photo: James Gill/Madison Opera

Opera has never excelled on the merits of plot, but composer Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata benefits more than most from the timeless, tragic tale at its heart.

Based on a play La Dame aux camellias, which itself was based on a novel by Alexendre Dumas fils, La Traviata (in English The Strayed Woman) tells the tale of Violetta Valéry, a dying Parisian courtesan exhausted by her lifestyle and seeking a quiet life in the country with Alfredo Germont. But old habits die hard, and when Baron Douphol re-enters her life, Violetta knows all soon will be lost.

And, this being opera, that’s exactly what happens.

La Traviata opens the Florentine Opera’s 2013–14 season on Nov. 8 in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall. Valéry is sung by soprano Elizabeth Cabellaro, tenor Rolando Sanz sings Germont and Douphol is sung by baritone Pablo Siquieros.

While the story resonates, Verdi’s compositions transcend. La Traviata stands among his best works — and the best of the operatic canon as a whole, according to William Florescu, the Florentine’s general director. Florescu also is directing the production.

“It’s the truth and sincerity in Verdi’s music that makes (the opera) stand out,” he says.

A significant facet of Verdi’s success is his skillful use of coloratura — elaborate melody — to enhance emotional content, according to Florescu. For example, Violetta’s aria “Sempre libera” contains an arching cascade of notes that reflects her desperate pursuit of freedom.

Performers must balance the strong emotional nature of the content with the intricate technical demands on their voices. In addition, they must sing over large orchestras, generally without microphones. The combination of skills demanded of operatic artists puts them in a class by themselves, Florescu says

“I suggest the same thing that many directors do,” Florescu says. “Get to the heart of the character’s emotions, retain the shell, and then reclaim your inner calm so that you can sing this very difficult music.”

Florescu notes that the late Maria Callas, considered one of Verdi’s leading interpreters, sometimes failed to achieve the inner calm required for mastery of the composer’s more challenging passages. Callas, known as “La Divina” and praised for her wide vocal range, was 53 when she died of a heart attack in Paris in 1977.

A very influential composer in his day, Verdi is credited with advancing opera as an art form. Verdi added dramatic realism to the bel canto (Italian for “beautiful singing”) style early in his career, then blurred the lines of the aria and recitative formats to serve the needs of both the structure and narrative.

“Ultimately, Verdi created the through-composed style of opera,” Florescu says. “Wagner is often credited for integrating music and drama, but Verdi did the same thing following his own creative and uniquely Italian path.”

Although La Traviata is a big, bold opera, Florescu wants audiences to be swept up in the story’s emotions, as well as the music.

“Although the party scenes are big fun and musically thrilling, this is essentially a human tragedy amongst three characters,” Florescu says. “The central heart of the story is the second act with Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. Everything grows out of her sacrificing her love for Alfredo.”

Indeed, the duet between the elder Germont (baritone Mark Walters) and Violetta, “Pura siccome un angelo,” may be worth the price of admission.

On stage

The Florentine Opera mounts its production of La Traviata Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Call  414-291-5700, ext. 22, or go to www.florentineopera.org/tickets.

Florentine’s season at a glance

La Traviata launches a stellar season for the Florentine Opera. Upcoming productions include:

• Fiesta Fiorentina: A Concert of Love, the annual song-filled performance that allows the Florentine Opera Studio Artists to shine, Feb. 14–16.

• Handel’s Julius Caesar, a story of power, corruption and death, March 28 and March 30. 

• Puccini’s La Bohéme, another masterwork of the opera canon and the inspiration for the musical Rent, May 9 and May 11.