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Unlike other narrative art, opera is not about figuring out what characters are feeling or thinking, since they tell you in no uncertain terms. Opera is about entering a space to explicitly have a shared emotional experience. It is about allowing yourself to feel emotions dialed up to eleven. To stage an opera effectively, a company must accept the transparency of the form, designing the production to best display the symphony of emotions presented by the synchronicity of orchestral music and live theatre. Opera Wilmington's production of La Traviata transcends being simply an effective staging to being a rich experience continually rooted in the emotional experience.
Composed in the 19th century by Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata follows a courtesan named Violetta who is dying of an unnamed ailment and is torn between her love for a nobleman named Alfredo and a desire to live the last days of her life in a carefree manner, literally asking the audience, "Can I give up love for a life of pursuing pleasure?" Things are further complicated when Alfredo's father tries to persuade Violetta to abandon Alfredo for the sake of his family name and Violetta's imminent wasting death.
It is familiar fair, but the plot is not where the hypothetical opera viewer derives aesthetic pleasure. La Traviata is built on a solid foundation of emotions: Violetta has back-to-back arias in the first act, one extolling the virtues of living a life dedicated to love ("Ah fors'è lui" ["Ah, perhaps he is the one"]), and another extolling the virtues of a life in pursuit of pleasure ("Siempre libera" ["Always free"]). The struggle between Violetta's warring desires drive the plot; the stuff with her illness and Alfredo's father only add additional gas to the race car. The music adds a further communicative layer that makes the emotions register that much more clearly.
All of these points, of course, are simply the points present within the original material that we have been staging for almost two hundred years. How does an opera company based out of coastal North Carolina handle the material?
With delicate care.
When the stage lit up and the production started, the first thing that struck me about the performance was the gorgeous set design by Max Lydy and the way it works closely with John McCall's lighting. The set is handsomely mounted and suggests four different locations by the artful arrangement of set pieces, but I will argue that the way the set for La Traviata is lit does half the work. In this production, each of the four locations has its own distinct color palette that communicates the tone of the scene, time of day, and other elements.
It helps that both lighting and set design make good use of the venue. UNCW's main stage hall has a depth that can make it feel somewhat cavernous if the set is short, especially since La Traviata is sung in Italian with English supertitles, thus necessitating that the audience look from the action on stage upwards. This could have emphasized the cavernous nature of the venue, but the set and lighting have created rich visuals between the actions and the titles so that it feels by the end like a natural part of the experience.
Speaking of the venue, it was an absolute delight to hear how well the production made use of the acoustics. Not only did the orchestra and singers organically fill the space, but they also created a textured layered sound, allowing for audiences to either pick out individual instruments and singers or simply bask in the entire experience.
Mark D. Sorensen's costumes adds a suitable elegance and glamour to the visual spectacle. I particularly admired the subtle ways Violetta is costumed so that your eye is always drawn to her in a crowd.
As for the cast, there was not a misplaced member or a sour note among them. There are few things quite as special as seeing (or should I say hearing) a professional opera singer. Elizabeth Stovall as Violetta and Roderick L. George as Alfredo typify this point. It's not simply that they have the vocal training to sing through several hours with only a few breaks, or that they can project enough to fill a space while making it sound easy; it's the emotions that they command within their voices, the ability to make you feel the pangs of a woman dying of heartbreak just from the way she sings about it. The roles were performed incredibly physically as well, whether in George's ability to communicate despair simply by the way his character leaned in his chair or Stovall's subtle trembling as Violetta lies dying in the final act. The rest of the cast followed the leads and similarly embodied their rolls, with an special shout out to Michael Rallis as Alfredo's father. A man whose stiff movements communicated both age and a certain preoccupation with dignity, while his voice offered surprises right up to the end.
The dance interludes were simply delightful, a masterfully executed dessert to accompany a rich meal. In fact, my only complaint about the production has nothing to do with the production itself, but rather the use of virtual programs. Not only does a virtual program rob an audience member of a most cherished theatrical memento, but I found the program itself on the website to be quite buggy. If I left the page for any reason, it would refresh it when I got back, sending me back to the beginning of the program regardless of where I was. Furthermore, and the company acknowledged this themselves, having a program that you can only see on your phone means you can't consult it once the show actually starts, especially necessary for viewing opera.
If you are new to opera, my best advice to watching an opera for the first time is to allow yourself just to feel it; allow yourself to be emotionally worked upon and you will have the optimal opera viewing experience. To that end, Opera Wilmington's staging of La Traviata serves as a masterful showcase of all that high opera is capable of conveying. It's clear that everyone in the production, from the lighting designer to the conductor, understands what makes opera truly special and worked together to bring that to their audience, who spent the night waiting for chances to applaud.
La Traviata continues through Sunday, July 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.