Opera Verdi Europa at UNCG: Uneven but Interesting
by William Thomas Walker
While the many-headed-Hydra of Triangle opera companies wrestled to develop, many music lovers got their first experiences of opera from a number of fine touring companies – the Goldovsky Opera Company, Canadian Opera, and touring arms of the San Francisco Opera and the New York City Opera. All featured (usually) able young singers on their way up, unit sets of various levels of complexity, and small chamber orchestras. Harsh economic realities have snuffed out most of those touring groups. Triad and Charlotte residents have seen the steady maturation of their resident companies: Greensboro Opera Company, Winston-Salem's Piedmont Opera, and Charlotte's Opera Carolina. Using fuller pit orchestras, these offer high standards of performance that give equal measure to dramatic acting and singing, as evidenced by both Triad companies' recent mountings of Tosca.
The UNC Greensboro Concert and Lecture Series program book was woefully brief in its information about the Opera Verdi Europa and its artists... – just a list of the singers, conductor, etc., that was hard to read because of its cursive script font. Established in 1996 by Ivan Kyurkchiev, the company draws its personnel from Bulgarian opera houses and symphony orchestras and from Romania, Hungary, Moldovia, Ukraine, and Russia. This is second year the ensemble has toured the U.S.
Opera Verdi Europa staged Verdi's La Traviata in UNCG's Aycock Auditorium January 25. The hall is by far the strangest that I frequent — its very uneven acoustics are best upstairs in the huge mezzanine and balcony but abysmal under the deep balcony overhang that covers two thirds of the orchestra seating. The small pit was filled with a chamber orchestra consisting of perhaps a dozen violins, violas, three cellos, two basses, and a few woodwinds and brasses. Despite the basses' physical location against the far right wall, weird hall acoustics caused them to dominate, as heard from my left-orchestra seat. Luckily, they were very good and in tight ensemble. It was an interesting experience but I would not want to repeat it. Other than an inexplicable false entry by the horn at the start of the all string prelude, the standard of playing was very good. Used to the fuller orchestral sound of most NC companies, the opening sounded thin indeed. Conductor Georgi Chaprazov proved to be a sensitive interpreter who kept the stage and pit on a close rein while phrasing and balancing with great care. With ears fully adjusted, the string prelude to the scene in Violeta's soirée (Act II, s. 2, in this production) was elegant and melting. The concertmistress delivered a moving solo during Violeta's death scene.
The stage director was Pavel Gerdzhikov and the set designer was Ivan Popov. The costumes were superb, and the simple unit sets were suggestive of opulence. The uncredited choreographer staged an unusually effective set of dances for the soirée. Two lithe dancers did a sensuous gypsy set followed by a Spanish sequence with a male dressed as a matador. Although I have seen more than a dozen performances of La Traviata, I cannot recall the dance sequences from any of them....
In much of the production, dramatic values seemed at one remove from the vocal. There was less of a fusion than the best local productions usually deliver. Opera Verdi was at its best in the Act II soirée scene and more intermittently in Act III. The chorus, beefed up with other company soloists, was excellent, and several fine baritone and mezzo soprano voices were heard as revelers.
While diction across the board was good, the size of the soloists' voices varied greatly. With gleaming metal in his voice, a fine tone, and a solid technique, tenor Kamen Chanev, the Alfredo, stood out above the rest of the cast. His voice easily filled Aycock. It was Del Monaco-like but used with more dynamic and expressive sensitivity. This production avoided the sin of too much busy stage business, but Chanev tended to be very static and very much a stand or sit-and-deliver man. With a much smaller voice combined with a slower warm up, the Violetta of soprano Anna Veleva was perhaps too dramatically valid, too "tubercular, " but given her pretty face and svelte figure, she looked ideal for the role. A very slight tremulous quality quickly disappeared as her voice warmed up in time for a fine "Sempre libera." Her voice has a bit of an instrumental quality, very precise in a Lily Pons-sort of way. Her Act III arias were moving, and the lovers' duet, "Parigi, o cara," was especially moving. Her smaller voice might be ideal for baroque opera. Ivan Kabomitov brought a firm and pleasant baritone to the role of the Elder Germont. Mezzo-soprano Silvia-Sorina Munteau was an effective Flora.