True Love Too Late

If you're one of those darkly romantic types who believes that even if God himself came down and brought you true love you'd just get hit by a Metro bus before you could enjoy it, then La Traviata is the opera for you.

It is the quintessential tale of love, loss, redemption and death. Based on the Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias, the opera tells the story of a consumptive concubine who, if not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold, finds God and goodness before taking her dying breath in the arms of her true love.

Houston Grand Opera gives this classic an excellent retelling, with the radiant Renée Fleming singing her maiden Violetta Valéry. While her debut is a much-anticipated event in opera circles, Fleming is not, at least not yet, the second coming of Maria Callas. She does, however, give wonderful voice and emotion to the courtesan. And her castmates and the production itself are more than equal to the challenge of this masterpiece by Giuseppe Verdi.

Clocking in at under three hours, La Traviata is perfectly cast, wonderfully conducted by Patrick Summers and well staged by director Frank Corsaro. The sumptuous sets and costumes are designed by Britain's Desmond Heeley, no stranger to Houston audiences thanks to his collaborations on Houston Ballet's many storybook productions. Lighting designer Christine Binder has a deft hand on the switch, creating luminous yet subtle effects.

Act I, with the Paris crowd bedecked in rich jewel-toned garb, introduces us to the life of party girl Violetta, whose suitor Alfredo Germont, sung by British tenor Paul Charles Clarke, declares his undying love despite her nagging cough and fainting spells. Right away you have a sense things won't end well. But that nagging feeling is lost in Fleming's scene-stealing aria, "Sempre libera" ("Always Free"). Her coloratura, a breathtaking series of trills and runs up and down the scale, gives goose bumps. The piece is a rite of passage for Fleming into the heady realm of those sopranos who have tackled this difficult role.

The longish Act II sees our lovebirds in a countryside paradise, but things are not as peachy as they seem. Having given up her sugar daddies, Violetta must sell her belongings to keep the love nest going, and Alfredo heads off to Paris to raise funds for his adored. In his absence, father Germont chastises the fallen woman for cheapening his son's reputation and destroying his daughter's chances for a successful union. Last-minute replacement Irish baritone Bruno Caproni does a smart turn as the concerned dad, and he and Fleming create a cocoon of feelings in their duet. He is forceful but not without sensitivity, and she begins with the strength of indignation before her voice gives way to wistful heartbreak. Fleming has amazing range, both technically and emotionally.

Violetta flees to Paris, for Alfredo's sake. But he soon shows up and insults her by casting money at her feet. Clarke acquits himself well here. He is never overly dramatic yet always convincing, and he stands up well next to diva Fleming. American mezzo-soprano Angela Niederloh has a fine turn as Violetta's friend Flora, and the party guests show why the HGO Chorus is a mainstay of the opera's productions. Alfredo sings his remorse over Violetta's declaration of love unto death (soon now, very soon) as the chorus sings its support. Voices rise, layer upon layer, in a crescendo that brings down the curtain.

And then she dies.

Well, actually, there's a 30-minute Act III where Violetta prays for divine forgiveness, the doctor lies to her and finally, Alfredo and father say they're sorry. But you know it's too little too late. As opera death scenes go, La Traviata's isn't on a scale with that of La Bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor -- it's hard to beat slashing your own throat with a sword. But it is a moving scene, and Violetta's last lyrical notes as she embraces her returned lover resonate until that final slump when she drops her bouquet of white camellias.

Fleming earlier made the statement she was glad to be singing her first Violetta in Houston as opposed to New York, where she'll take another run at the role at the Met in September. The dig at Houston aside, it's hard to imagine New Yorkers could get a better performance than this one.

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Marene Gustin