There's a reason that La Traviata, an opera about the doomed love between a consumptive courtesan and an aristocrat, is one of the most frequently performed in the world: It's gorgeous, packed with luscious songs and expressive arias, full of pulsating emotion. But Central City Opera's La Traviata is a particular treat.
The Central City Opera House is small and well-constructed, so there's no need for amplification and nothing to impede sound. The overture begins, Verdi's heavenly sounds creep into your ears and swell, and you're immediately immersed, absorbed, transported for over two swiftly flying hours. Here's Violetta, bright, lighthearted and charming, mingling with her guests and warbling about the joys of living for pure pleasure — a doctrine made more convincing by the range, fluidity and depth of Jennifer Casey Cabot's voice, as well as her effortless coloratura. Now enter Chad Shelton as Alfredo Germont, attempting to court Violetta with his melting, caramel-sweet tenor. And then she's alone again, saucily tossing off her dress and shoes, trying to decide whether to take his love seriously.
She does, of course. By the second act, the couple is ensconced in a cozy, country-house love nest. And now — in one of the most famous scenes in opera — Germont's father, Giorgio, shows up to confront Violetta and ask, in the most tender, compassionate way imaginable, that she leave Alfredo before she wrecks his life and his family's reputation. I had remembered this scene as passionate, but I hadn't remembered quite how fluid and rich its emotions are, or how multi-faceted the two principals reveal themselves to be. Grant Youngblood brings a warm and powerful baritone to the role, and Casey Cabot's acting talent shines here. When Violetta asks the man who has just destroyed her life to hold her — essentially begging for comfort from the very source of her pain — it's a profoundly moving moment.
Then comes another party scene, with the gaiety more forced and more menacing, which climaxes when Germont contemptuously tosses money at Violetta. She swoons. Germont Senior returns and declaims in self-righteous song that he's ashamed of his son, because it's always wrong to insult a woman. (Apparently it's okay to ruin her — just do it politely!) In the opera's closing moments, Violetta is on her deathbed and we're awaiting the moment that we know must come, the moment when Alfredo rushes into the room and gathers her in his arms for the requisite love-death.
The entire production is carefully thought through. Australian director Justin Way has placed extra emphasis on story and character, and conductor Martin Andre's pacing is eloquent and fluid. From the glittering golds and blacks of the party scenes to the leaf patterns that dominate in the country house, the scenery is meticulously designed by Peter Harrison, with the entirety creating an enclosed, hothouse effect, so that even when Violetta asks her maid to open a window, precious little cleansing light comes through.
There's a paradox to La Traviata: The story is tragic, but its movement provides the kind of sensual joy you feel when a particularly rich piece of chocolate dissolves in your mouth. Like delicious food, the music bypasses your frontal lobes and galvanizes the primitive amygdala. But there's no cloying aftertaste, just one sweet, pure, clean sensation following another. And having seized your attention, the work demands your intellect as well, so that you can try and comprehend its changes in shape, tempo and dynamic, the patterns it makes unfolding through time.
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