The set-up: For Wagnerian dramatic sopranos, the ultimate role is Brunhilde, the warrior goddess stripped of her godhead by her father Wotan and put into a magic sleep upon a mountain top surrounded by fire. For Verdian dramatic sopranos, opera's own special breed, the ultimate role is found in La Traviata with high-end prostitute Violetta, the "lady of the camellias" from Alexandre Dumas' shocking novel about Paris's demi-monde. It's the most difficult female role Verdi ever composed, for it's been said that the best interpretation would require four singers, one for each scene, since the vocal requirements in each are so different.
Coloratura of the highest caliber is needed for Act I, where Violetta tosses off her show-stopping cabaletta, "Sempre libera" ("Always free"), after declaring a new lease on love with young Alfredo in the romantic reverie, "Ah fors'e lui," ("Can it be"). In Act II, in perhaps Verdi's grandest confrontation scene, she's all glorious drama when Alfredo's father Germont, with tears of his own, persuades her to give up her young lover whose future life she is ruining. Next, at Flora's party, she's embarrassed to find Alfredo there, bitter and jealous over her new affair with the Baron. He insults her by flinging his gambling winnings at her as the suitable payment she deserves. In the final act, distraught and dying of consumption, Violetta must spin out the most delicate of pianissimo passages - twice! - as she relives her love affair with Alfredo and prays for forgiveness. Finally, in an ironic rush of renewed vigor and hopefulness when Alfredo returns, she collapses in his arms. His return is too late, and nothing can save this contrite young woman who has finally found love, then loses it. Tears all around.
Violetta is the role of a lifetime, and Opera in the Heights has found a stunning voice and presence in soprano Sara Heaton. What a find! Not only is she extremely pleasant to look at (as any Violetta should be - she's the highest-paid courtesan in Paris not because she has a splendid library), but her voice is a revelation. It has dark undertones which fills it out, yet it's clear and crystal bright. It's also just downright beautiful to listen to. A consummate actress to boot, Heaton glows as Violetta. Maestro Enqrique Carreon-Robledo could be seen smiling as she triumphed in her arias. She sails through those roulades, acts up a storm with Germont, sings of her love with radiant ardor and conviction, and dies whispering her farewell, "Addio del passato," to a plaintive oboe accompaniment and the sounds of revelers outside celebrating carnival. She breaks your heart with her splendid voice. This is also Verdi at his theatrical best, knowing when to leave us alone with our thoughts, but then bringing us up short by reminding us that life goes on.
Would that Heaton's Alfredo been up to her standard, but tenor Steven Wallace lagged many measures behind. Rough and bit ragged, he pushed his voice all the time, never comfortable with Verdi's dramatic line. He got through it, but it wasn't with plush sound or any semblance of being infatuated with this woman of the world. I'll give him the benefit of a doubt: it was unbearable hot in Lambert Hall, which suffered a blackout earlier in the day that knocked out all power, including the air conditioning, until just before the evening performance. It never got cool, and programs fanned the air until the audience looked blurry. In the last act while Violetta lies on her deathbed, friend Annina (soprano Lisa Borik) covers her with a blanket. The audience reacted with disbelief and drowned out Verdi for a moment.
Baritone Octavio Moreno had no problem with the heat or anything else. He gave priggish father Germont a real backstory, as his voice rang throughout the sweaty hall. An alumnus of Houston Grand Opera's studio program, Moreno has since won voice competitions, and, while rather too young to be Wallace's old man, he convinced through his singing. His ballad to Alfredo, "Di Provenza" ("In Provence") to remind his beloved son of his childhood home, is lilting and innocent like a lullaby. It certainly harkens to the countryside and times long ago. Moreno with his honeyed baritone sang this as sweetly as if standing over a cradle.
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As to the production, poor Verdi would have a stroke. In 1853 he saw his world premiere go down in flames because the Venetian censors changed the c.1850 time period to the improbable era of Louis XIV, diluting librettist Piave's biting social commentary under filigreed knee britches and dainty powdered wigs. Opera in the Heights director Lynda McKnight doesn't do Verdi any justice by updating the setting to contemporary Paris. If anything, this makes a hash out of the story, because Violetta is now a singer at the Paris Opera, not a prostitute. The great irony in this tale of sacrifice is the fact that Alfredo's sister cannot get married if her brother is in love with a lady of the evening. The family's name and honor is at stake. An opera singer doesn't quite have the same scandalous freight as whore. Update all you want, but leave Violetta's profession alone. Her career is the story.
Maestro Carreon-Robledo shows his appreciation for Verdi with a lovely, if not always lively, rendition. Again, the heat probably played a part, for the strings didn't always sound in tune, and Verdi wrote some of opera's most ethereal-sounding string passages in Traviata. The subsidiary roles were nicely rounded out: soprano Megan Berti's madam Flora was flashy; baritone Daymon Passmore's Barone Douphol was appropriately displeased when Violetta drops him for young Alfredo; Nick Szoeke's Doctor was all sympathy; and Lisa Borik's Annina was a good friend through the end. The OH chorus sounded full and resonant, playing up a storm as hedonistic partygoers.
The verdict: Verdi's masterpiece - one of many - was composed just after Rigoletto and Trovatore. Later, of course, would come Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlos, Aida, The Requiem, Otello, and Falstaff. Once he hit his stride, there was no stopping him. La Traviata, though, is an unparalleled audience favorite. According to the unimpeachable Operabase, it's the most performed opera in the world. If you've never seen this musically emotional roller-coaster ride, here's a chance to see why it's so beloved. Heaton will convince you.
Verdi's great opera about fallen women, found love, and lost life sings out October 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, and 13 at Opera in the Heights, Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. (The alternate cast, October 5, 11, 13, stars Julia Ebner as Violetta, Chris Trapani as Alfredo, and Robert Aaron Taylor as Germont.) Purchase tickets online at operaintheheights.org or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.