The Stevens Center of the North Carolina School of the Arts seemed packed with opera lovers eagerly anticipating the opening night performance of one of the most beloved chestnuts of the repertory, La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi superbly directed by Michael Shell. While its stage is too small for grand opera such as Aida, the restored old movie theater can enhance the interplay of the drama that is sometimes lost on a huge stage filled with too active extras or chorus members. Piedmont Opera has a solid record for combining a few imported stars with the best of mature regional talent combined with members of the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute, potential stars of tomorrow. A key ingredient of the opera company’s success is its possession of a true orchestra pit in Stevens Center in which the brass is physically under the stage while the strings are seated in the open part between the stage and audience.

In the fall of 2005, I reviewed a fine Virginia Opera production of La Traviata in Richmond that featured the Violetta of soprano Cristina Nassif. Her vivid embodiment and singing of the role (directed by Dorothy Danner) drove me to my Rodale’s The Synonym Finder for non-redundant superlatives. A subsequent fiery Carmen and a complex Nedda made her appearance in this production all the more keenly anticipated. Her powerful voice easily filled Stevens Center as it had Richmond’s Landmark Theater. More importantly, her most quiet passages floated into the hall and were readily audible. Her voice was beautifully focused, exactly on pitch, and she applied a refined palette of color to convey quicksilver changes of emotions. It was fascinating to watch Nassif add subtle character touches to her core interpretation in order to bring out new facets of the courtesan with a heart of gold.

Piedmont Opera provided Nassif with an Alfredo Germont fully worthy of her Violetta. The role was filled by Harold Meers, and there was never a question of searing passion when he was on stage. His wholehearted impetuosity was wedded to an even and firm tenor that had a nice ring to it. He could even bring a tear to its sound without any Gigli-like aspirations during his heart-wrenching final moments with Violetta.

The casting of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, is often the weakest element in a production. A long established opera house may trot out a much beloved bass or baritone whose vocal instrument is in leather-like tatters. The depth of portrayal is musically undercut. Advanced school and young company productions may foist a callow youth in heavy make up with a fine young voice, but he lacks the life experience to put across the concerned 19th Century middle class father. Piedmont Opera’s baritone Robert Overman was far more successful than most Giorgios I have seen during some 30 years of attending regional performances. The Greensboro College-based singer has had a singing career of more than 20 years, including 15 years in Europe. His firm and evenly balanced voice is still in its prime and he fully brought out his character’s anguish during Violetta’s death scene.

Secondary roles were cast from strength. It was a joy to see the vital portrayal of Flora Bervoix by mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis. I first heard her fine voice when she sang the role of Orpheus’s mother in David Holley’s delightful production of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at UNC Greensboro in 2001, followed by her induction in the first class of A. J. Fletcher Fellows. Her amiable, if perhaps unfaithful suitor, Marchese D’Obigny, was brought humorously to life by baritone James A. McClure who is an active singer statewide. Tenor Adam Ulrich made a good impression in the role of Gastone.

Current Fletcher Fellows made strong impressions. Mezzo-soprano Amy Hartsough brought a beautiful and well-rounded voice to the role of Violetta’s maid, Annina. Baritone Christopher Ervin brought the jealous, volatile suitor of Violetta, Baron Douphol, vividly to life. The deep sepulchral bass of Jonathan Merritt caught my ear while he was still an undergraduate at the NCSA. Here he was a rock-solid Doctor Grenvil, but I could not help wonder if Violetta found comfort from the sound of a potential Sparafucile (the assassin in Verdi’s Rigoletto)!

The members of the Winston-Salem Symphony in the pit played splendidly with beautiful unity and warmth from its string sections. The throbbing notes of the double basses were especially rich and warm, and the threatening tones of the trombones in Act III were spine chilling. Conductor James Allbritten, no mean tenor himself, kept tight and instantly responsive co-ordination between the stage and pit.

Stage Director Michael Shell brought out many details that clarified relationships. For example, using Set Designer John Wright Stevens’ fine multilevel unit stage set at a 45-degree angle to the audience, Shell placed Alfredo and his rival Baron Douphol on the corner closest to the listener. This drew a focus on their early animosity, often lost on a larger stage in a sea of too much stage business. In Act III, Shell also heightened the impact of Alfredo’s rebuke of his father for his disastrous interference.

Stevens’ attractive hardwood set was easily converted to a ballroom by adding elaborately framed mirrors, to a country estate with plantings on grill works, and finally curtains and bedroom elements. All was enhanced by the sophisticated lighting of Norman Coates. The eye-catching period costumes were designed by John Lehmeyer. Nancy Goldsmith’s very effective translation, used for the supertitles, was very well timed and user friendly, especially during ensembles.