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Virginia Opera on Tour in Richmond: Cristina Nassif's Outstanding Violetta

by William Thomas Walker

Having seen many local and touring productions of Verdi's opera La Traviata over the years, only the presence of Director Dorothy Danner initially lured me to attend the October 23 matinee performance of Virginia Opera's production, given in Richmond's Landmark Theater. She has been on my short list of directors who work with, not against composers since I reviewed her elegant Piedmont Opera production of Massenet's Manon for a now-defunct magazine. Her positive approach was confirmed by a stylish Virginia Opera production of Strauss' Die Fledermaus, reviewed in CVNC. Unusually fervent press releases and photos hinted that their Violetta, soprano Cristina Nassif, is a major talent on the cusp of a great career. Insightful direction, a stellar lead, a strong cast of co-principals, and a well-prepared orchestra yielded a superb theatrical experience.

Danner's creative touch was literally seen during the glowing opening Prelude. As conductor Joseph Walsh coaxed ethereal and warm string melodies from the members of the Virginia Symphony in the pit, scenes from Violetta's earlier life were mimed within a spot-lit stage. A poor peasant girl was sold into prostitution, and with each encounter with another man, she became better dressed. At the end of the prelude, soprano Nassif entered from behind a side curtain, looking like a million dollars in a glittering white ball gown. She stared at the audience as if looking into a mirror and recalling her dark experiences. (Again, during the heart-rending prelude to Act III, set in the mortally-ill Violetta's bedroom, a pawnbroker mimed inventorying her possessions and giving money to her maid, Annina.)

Simple sets suggested various locations. A large raked disc became, in turn, the ballroom floor, the terrace of Violetta's and Alfredo's county house, the ballroom again, and finally, Violetta's barren bedroom. The scenery was designed by Eduardo Sicangco for Virginia Opera. The lighting, designed by Norman Coates, was effective throughout.

The young Alfredo Germont is often a self-centered cad, and in the beginning tenor Daniel Snyder played him as being pretty shallow. His acting was a little stiff in Act I, and his voice did not fully warm up until Act II. Thereafter the tenor had more warmth and a good ring in his high notes. He brought out genuine pathos in the final scene. It was announced that baritone Grant Youngblood was suffering from a cold and begged the audience's understanding, but indulgence was never obviously needed as he fleshed out the full emotional range of Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont. There were no cracked or pinched notes – just a warm and seamless line, subtly colored. The fine voice of the Lumberton, NC, native is well known in the Triad and Triangle and has been frequently praised in CVNC.

Having seen a number of first-rate Violettas, I was unprepared for the fuller range of complexity that soprano Cristina Nassif brought to the role. Besides having the looks that are ideal for a courtesan, she has a dazzling voice that is dramatically effective whether used at a hushed piano or raised across its range to a precisely-placed high note at the climax of an aria. Her application of vocal color and nuanced dynamics to bring out the emotional truth of her character as she phrased her lines was thrilling. She fully plumbed the emotional depths in all her arias.

Geneviève Després' ample mezzo-soprano was welcome in the role of Violetta's friend Flora. Soprano Lara Colby was effective as Violetta's maid Annina. The hot-tempered Baron Douphol was Alan Fischer, whose rather tight and small tenor made the character seem less threatening than usual. Virginia Opera veteran character baritone Robert Randolph was welcome as the kind-hearted Doctor. Tenor Jeffrey Halili and baritone Scott Root brought great physical agility and good vocalization to the roles of Alfredo's friends Gastone and the Marquis d'Obigny, respectively. Other brief parts were taken serviceably by tenor Micheal Dailey (Giuseppe), baritone Larry J. Giddons (a messenger), and baritone Wes Mason (Flora's servant).

Edited & corrected 10/27 & 11/7/05.

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