Economic downturns bring about even more “bread’n butter” programming from opera companies. Opera Carolina General Director James Meena could not have chosen more core repertoire than La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, probably one of the three or four most popular operas with the public. The company’s otherwise satisfying production of the Verdi opera in 2006 had been marred by an indisposed or weak soprano as Violetta []. This 2011 version was superbly cast from strength across the board. It well-deserved the enthusiastic applause it received from an apparently sold out Belk Theater audience. A gratifying high percentage of young adults and students were in the mix.

The real life love affair of author Alexander Dumas fils with a courtesan inspired his novel La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camelias). This was the source used by Verdi’s librettist, Francesco Maria Paive. The story of the courtesan with the heart of gold – the social outcast Violetta, who is redeemed through her love of Alfredo and her selfless sacrifice of his love for the marital aspirations of Alfredo’s virginal sister – is well known if incomprehensible outside of bourgeois nineteenth century European society.

Soprano Jennifer Black was an outstanding Violetta with the perfect blend of vocalism and acting. Her strong, warm-timbered voice was evenly supported from its lowest, quietest range to its soaring, perfectly focused high notes. She was fully in character at all times on stage as she conveyed Violetta’s growth from empty kept woman through her sudden finding of passionate love, to its tragic loss and a death scene worthy of the Greek tragedies. My CVNC colleague was impressed with her Greensboro Opera performance of Violetta in a well-received 2009 production

Handsome looks combined with a robust, solidly supported tenor voice made Jonathan Boyd a superb Alfredo. His warm tone and finely focused pitch were combined with a wide palette of color and dynamics. Boyd fully embodied Alfredo’s idealistic, impetuous romanticism as well as his mercurial temper. Baritone Mark Rucker’s voice had more than enough dark, rich tone to pull off the role of the elder Germont, Alfredo’s father. Rucker had the stage presence and gravitas in spades to make the character imposing. This La Traviata performance was dedicated to the memory of Rucker’s father, Olney K. Rucker, an accomplished conductor and bass baritone who passed away January 23, 2011.

Someone said there are no small parts, and Opera Carolina has always had solid local and imported talent for so-called supporting roles. Mezzo-soprano Jessie Wright Martin was a reliable Flora, Violetta’s friend. Davidson College Physics Department Chairman, baritone Dan Boye cam always be counted on to turn in strongly characterized and sung performances, and his Baron Douphol was no exception. Violetta’s confidante Annina was sung effectively by soprano Jennifer Reid. This is her seventh season with the company. Tenor John Kaneklides was fine in the brief role of Gastone. Bass John Fortson’s sepulchral voice was a bonus in the brief role of Doctor Grevil. It is always a treat to follow singers from advanced student days as they progress in their career. Baritone Alphonso Cherry sang and acted the role of the Marquis d’Obigny superbly. As an A.J. Fletcher scholar, he sang the title role in Donizetti’s Belisario in the 2005 University of North Carolina School of the Arts world premiere of the new critical edition  []. (Belisario deserves to be taken up by professional companies.)

Stage Director Kay Castaldo retained the appropriate 19th century Parisian setting for La Traviata, and her arranging of the action was very effective, dramatically. Her staging of Alfredo’s encounter with Violetta in Act I beginning with Scene 3 and leading to “Una di felice” (“One Day, A Rapture”), began intimately, with Alfredo on bended knee by Violetta before moving upright for the aria. This was so much more intimately connected than the usual “stand and deliver” approach. Two things seemed like gilding the lily. In Act II, a silent young lady, presumably Alfredo’s sister, stands far backstage at the edge of Violetta’s street while the elder Germont pulls out all the stops to make Violetta drop his son. In Act III, a carnival dancer in black, perhaps depicting Violetta’s delirium or death, takes a whirl with her before almost fading into the stylized walls of her room. Both of these are justifiable dramatically but are they not a bit too much?

The chorus was superbly prepared in both singing and acting. Lighting designed by Michael Baumgarten was very effective. The scenery by Lloyd Evans was excellent, from Violetta’s salon, with its long, curved grand staircase, to her elaborate country garden in Act II, to the stylized bedroom of Act III. Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel played up the Spanish theme of Flora’s Act II party and principal dancers. He and Mahri Relin brought plenty of athleticism and passion to their ensemble dance.

Guest conductor Joel Revzen, currently in his 8th season as Artistic Director of Arizona Opera, led a superbly balanced and judged performance. The strings of the Charlotte Symphony glowed and shimmered in Verdi’s heart-rending melodies. The woodwinds were strongly characterized, and the trumpets played with extraordinary refinement and subtlety during episodes such as the duet between Violetta and Alfredo toward the end of Act I. Coordination between the pit orchestra and the onstage singers was unusually strong, and the unity of pitch between the two was extraordinary.

Edited/corrected 2/7/11.