Elizabeth Caballero + Violetta Valeri = Match made in heaven
Madison Wisconsin residents were given a huge treat this weekend when their local company closed their Golden Anniversary Season with Verdi’s La Traviata. After a series of auditions in Chicago, my significant other and I trekked in that direction to see the opening night performance. Let me tell you something, that long drive was so worth it.
My first impression as I entered Overture Hall, the performing space that Madison Opera uses was OMG, I would kill to sing here. The hall is gorgeous in a modern sensibility, not too big as to overwhelm the voices and not too small as to render the space uncomfortably intimate. The seats are very comfortable and believe it or not, you can connect to the internet from the comfort of your seat; which makes tweating and facebooking about your experience instant. Needless to say, I took advantage of the opportunity during intermissions (duh!) and I have to say I loved it. Now, how many of you guys can say that you were able to tweet right from your seat? I know, I know, it might seem like the end of the world to some of you, but remember, the new generation is the “instant gratification” generation. Anything that will bring a tushie to a seat to enjoy the art form I love is a good strategy so kudos to the management of Overture Hall for their vision.
The reason for me being there, and I freely admit it was the presence of soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta Valeri, the courtesan who sacrifices herself for the well being of a pampered young girl with a close minded father and fiancee. If you remember well, I first saw Caballero live in the role of Nedda in KY opera and I was blown over. We had remained in contact since and a frienship has been blossoming. Since Traviata is my all time favorite opera, I had to see Caballero in the role no mater what. You can take whatever I say with a grain of salt, given how you already know she is a friend or you can wait until the broadcast in NPR World of Opera this Summer to realize that what I am saying is accurate; you decide…
Point is that Elizabeth Caballero gave an amazing performance of the role of Violetta. There was no weak moment, her singing of the role went from strength to strength in a performance that is better described as devastating. After the first act, my reaction was that Caballero was not even making it fair for other sopranos in the role right now. After acts II and III my first impression was conformed and I have to say that her Violetta stands on equal footing as some of the great Violettas of this generation and past ones. There was simply not one spot where I thought she was having a tough time coping! After seeing her in the role, I just have no desire to experience either Netrebko or Poplavskaya, 2 sopranos that seem to be gathering a lot of attention for the role, and some of it not for the right reasons. I simply can not think of any soprano who can surpass Caballero in the ease of coloratura and still retain the lyric qualities to be successful in the heavy passages of act II and be able to spin an Addio del passato that left me looking at the stage through the glassy veil of tears. I simply can not see this role being better sung by almost anyone; specially the Russian flavors of the month Peter Gelb at the Met seems to be so enamored with.
If her singing has been this good and the acting sucked, at least I would have had a reason to find fault. The issue is that just as her singing was glorious, her acting was in par with her singing. There was not a gesture out of place, not a movement, not a glance. During act I she remained aware that the clock was ticking away on her but this did not mean some kind of “fate” acting; instead she remained appropriately youthful and carefree. In act II, she grew in stature as she had to confront both Germonts. Act III was first a cry of desperation and finally a love letter to the woman she knows will eventually replace her in Alfredo’s heart.
Talking about Alfredo, the April 29th performance marked the American debut of Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano. It is my understanding that even though we had never heard him in our side of the Atlantic, he is already a seasoned Alfredo with more than 30 performances of the role under his belt. I wish I could report that this was a happy occasion for Mr. Varano. Who among us wouldn’t want our debut in an opera house, let alone in a country be the stuff of legends? Unfortunately Mr. Varano had some health issues related to the acidity of our food (specially American tomatoes) that affected his voice. I think it would be unfair to go in detail about what went on because, well, the faster he forgets about it the better.
If there is any consolation, I hope someone tells him that Pavarotti’s high C cracked like a firework in his Met debut yet look at where he stands in history. Now, not everything is sad news in my report of Mr. Varano. While we have to admit that we might have not heard the quality of singing that brought him to the USA, we still saw the quality of the acting and in that, he remained committed. His Alfredo remained passionate, if a little overacted. I have a feeling that him being in survival mode had some to do with some of his dramatic choices. His voice is perfect for the role and in a moment of small victory, he willed his way through a very successful O mio rimorso (the cabaletta to Dei miei bolenti). The fact that he didn’t attempt the high C did not bother me at all. I hope his next performances in the USA will be under better circumstances and that he will soon be able to laugh at this moment in his career. Certainly he has an interesting story to tell his grand-kids, when he has them. Welcome to America Mr. Varano.
The role of Giorgio Germont was filled by American baritone and Grammy award winner Donnie Ray Albert. Mr. Albert might be a familiar name to some in great part due to his recording of the role of Porgy for RCA in conjunction to a series of performances of the opera in Houston many, many moons ago. It was nice to be able to experience the art of Mr. Albert 16 years after I shared the stage with him (as a chorister) in a Cincinnati Opera Aida that saw him as Amonastro.
Just like his Amonastro 16 years ago, Mr. Albert commanded the stage and sounded amazing in a role that some baritones around his age drop because it is getting a little too high. His confrontation with Violetta found him a little uncomfortable with this woman who all of a sudden was behaving in too familiar way with him, yet when it was time to scold his son in the next scene, he found himself not looking at his son, but walking to Violetta to teach the younger Germont how a lady is to be treated. Mr. Albert’s singing remains as impressive as ever. He is a masterful technician and after singing heavy Verdi roles for the good part of 25 years, he barely sounded like he had to work hard to sing this role.
The performance was conducted with masterful precision and great support by John DeMain, whose beat was never anything less than precise and visible. There were no missing cues that I can remember nor was there any instances of singers or chorus being behind or ahead of the beat. His control of the orchestra was absolute and they performed for him like they were serenading the love of their life. This orchestra, my first time hearing them, impressed me for the beauty of the sound and the control of the dynamics. The support they gave the singer was nothing short of perfection and Madison opera is lucky to have such a wonderful orchestra at their disposition; a big bravo to the maestro and the maestros in the orchestra. The same thing needs to be said about the Madison Opera Chorus, who under the direction of Anthony Cao (who also sang the messenger in Act II-i) supported the principals beautifully. Their singing was precise in act I, like a soft cushion during the concertato that ends act II and appropriately rowdy in the short offstage chorus in act III.
And while we are at it, we must mention all the wonderful singers who took on small, yet not unimportant supporting roles in the show. Honor mention must go to Jamie van Eyck for her feisty and wonderfully sung Flora. Just as much praise must also be reserved for Heath Rush, whose Gastone showed a voice capable of dealing with heavier assignments than this and a color or a future Don Jose. Jeremy Kelly, Paul Rowe, Gregory Brumfield, Allisanne Apple, Joshua Sanders and Glen Siferd all shone brightly in their respective assignments of the Marquis, Duphol, Grenvil, Annina, Giuseppe the gardener, and the servant. Bravi to all for a job well done.
The show, performed on the sets and costumes designed by Desmond Heeley owned by Chicago Lyric Opera and wonderfully lit (if a little too red in spots) by Christine A. Binder (the original light designer) was directed with conviction by Garnett Bruce. Mr. Bruce did not give us cardboard cut-outs but living and breathing people. His direction was rich in detail I (like Giorgio discovering how Violetta had kept his letter all this time), yet free enough that the singer never looked stiff. If there was any complaint was how he tended to keep some of the minor characters on stage longer than they needed to be; like Annina, and the gardener hanging on stage during what was obviously a very private conversation between the mistress of the house and the gentleman who showed up unannounced. Surely, if they noticed her reactions, why did they not get involved? I also wish he would have softened the character of Germont father and created a better stage picture during his aria. I have longed for a long time to see a Germont sing Di Provenza not to the audience or to the emptiness but to his son either as he holds the crying Alfredo in his arms or as he strikes his hair while the heartbroken man cries on his lap or on a chair. All these are but minor quibbles in a show that was directed with such expertise by Mr. Bruce.
Let me tell you people, I am glad I took this detour and went to see the show. Not only that, I hope I will get to see more performances in this city. Not only is the venue gorgeous, the city has a vibe that made me fall in love with it. All in all, I could have not been more impressed with what I saw, heard and experienced.
Next year Madison opera will be performing Onegin, Cenerentola and Phillip Glass’ Galileo and I can not encourage you enough to visit them if you are in the city. More information about their 51st season can be found in their website. If you can not wait, there will be a concert featuring Soprano Maria Kanyova (among others) on July 16th that is free and you can also find details in their website or by sending an email to them.
Lastly, I want to send a big hug to some very nice people who I met during my stay in Madison. Being a friend of the diva had its perks and through her I was invited to a small gathering of a club named Out at the Opera. O @ O is a group of gay opera fans that were hosting a fabulous party after the performance and I met some wonderful people there. They didn’t care I was not wearing a tux (I never do when I got to the opera) and they made me feel right at home, even in my jeans. If you are a Madison resident, and a member of the LGBT community, do contact the opera company and ask how can you join this group, you will not regret it.
And because there is no letter without a post script, Colorado residents and those who can attend performances in Central City should take note that Elizabeth Caballero is coming to your town. She will be singing Micaela this Summer with Central City Opera and Mimi next year. In between now and then, Kansas City will hear her as Liu and Nashville as Nedda and if you are in those cities, you are forewarned…
Next is Traviata (again) in Indianapolis with the fabulous Maureen O’Flynn, and I can not wait!