A rare scheduling conjunction brought two fine productions of Verdi’s La Traviata within the range of North Carolina opera addicts during the 2005-2006 season. Last October, CVNC reviewed Virginia Opera’s superb touring production of the perennial favorite Verdi tragedy in Richmond, where soprano Cristina Nassif, permanently raised the critical bar for the role of Violetta. The last of four performances of Opera Carolina’s production, heard in Charlotte’s acoustically excellent Belk Theater on January 29, made a satisfyingly complete dramatic and musical experience despite some shortcomings.

After the ravages of Mao Tse Dong’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, a new generation of well trained Chinese singers is making an impact on the opera world. Opera Carolina’s Alfredo Germont, Jianyi Zhang, was everything a tenor should be. Quickly warming up after a good Brindisi (“Labiamo, libiamo nei lieti calici”), his voice took on a burnished quality. His intonation was wonderfully focused, and he used a wide palette of colors and dynamic nuances to convey his character’s gamut of emotions. He was a model singer-actor, fully in character at all times.

Even without the aforementioned benchmark for the role of Violetta, my enthusiasm for Opera Carolina’s Violetta, soprano Diane Alexander, would have been mixed. A too-broad vibrato and a lack of exact focus on the pitch in louder passages were persistent problems. Her acting was good, and her best work began in Act II, with her heartbreaking confrontation with Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s overbearing father. From this point on, she was totally involved in her character and her voice was more consistently on the mark because much of the part made use of lower dynamics. Her death scene, aided by realistic makeup and skilled lighting, made more impact than usual – her Violetta appeared truly wraith-like.

The Giorgio Germont of baritone Gaëtan Laperrière was more imposing than the norm. His full and robust voice readily filled the hall, and he towered over both Alfredo and Violetta. His performance was one of the best I yet seen and heard, and I look forward to his future roles. Mezzo-soprano Nicole Vogel was a fine Flora in terms of acting and her even and well-centered voice. What a treat it was to see this professional appearance of a singer CVNC had reviewed in her UNCG days, when – as Nicole Elizabeth Asel – she appeared as Dorabella in Così fan tutte and Jo March in Adamo’s Little Women.

The local talent pool used by Opera Carolina is remarkably high. Baritone Dan Boye, a Professor of Physics at Davidson College, sang a firm Baron Douphol and brought much more noble bearing to the role than is often the case. He cut a fine, tall image, moving with self-contained grace, in his baronial suit. Gastone was sung by mellow-toned tenor Jason Karn, who had sung Alfredo in an added January 27 performance. Jeff Monette’s well-rounded baritone was welcome in the role of Marquis d’Obigny. The dark and deep voice of bass George Washington III was unusually luxurious in the small part of Doctor Grenvil. The role of Annina, Violetta’s maid, benefited from soprano Sonia Rodríuez Bermejo’s combination of a well focused voice and good acting. She is an Opera Carolina Young Artist.

Stage Director Bernard Uzan presented a fine traditional production that enhanced Verdi’s drama instead of going at cross-purposes, as too many “cutting edge” directors do. During the Prelude, the entire cast of Act I formed a tableaux vivant behind a diaphanous scrim. Lighting was slowly brightened over the course of the music. A similar staging involving the sick and beleaguered Violetta sitting in a spot-lit chair was even more effective during the playing of the Prelude to Act III. The blocking of the primary singers and the chorus was unforced and efficacious. The gorgeous and colorful costumes from Malabar, Ltd., were enhanced by imaginative lighting. John Lehmeyer designed the costumes, which set the opera roughly in the 1880s. The architecturally-striking and substantial sets were from Opéra Montréal. The set designer was Claude Girard. Kudos to the myriad of subtle and not so restrained effects – the bright red lighting of Flora’s soirée in Act II, s.2, comes to mind – wonderfully designed by Michael Baumgarten.

Opera Carolina Director and Principal Conductor James Meena led a masterful performance with tight coordination between the action on stage and the fine members of the Charlotte Symphony in the pit. The strings, so vital in the two great Preludes, played like angels, with the violins phrasing as one for seamless highs and the cellos melting every heart with their great flowing melodies. Hollis Ulaky phrased the important oboe solo in Act III flawlessly. Concermaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s achingly beautiful and extensive Act III solos received the unusual acclamation of sharing the final curtain call along with the conductor and soloists. Nothing was wanting in the preparation by Chorus Master Mark Tysinger. The outstanding choreography for Flora’s soirée, by Till Schmidt-Rimpler, featured a pair of very athletic dancers from his Moving Poets of Dance Company doing spectacular leaps and turns while talented amateurs, drawn from the chorus, portrayed the winsome gypsies.

A Postlude, presented in the too-small McColl room, was packed with standing-room-only opera lovers who sipped coffee and nibbled small sandwiches while Meena held a wide-ranging discussion about aspects of presenting opera and choosing, planning and scheduling productions; he responded frankly and wittily to substantial questions from the audience. He called opera a “crap shoot” because you can never be sure that a singer in top form today will be able to deliver two or three years later when he (or she) is scheduled to sing. He said that each woman in the cast wore realistic costumes weighing some 35 pounds, with outer shells covering full arrays of traditional petticoats. The “care and feeding” of singers and elements of creating a good ensemble were detailed. It was remarkable to find a director spending so much time with the public, but it is a promising approach.