Although my work as a performing arts critic began in the New York area, my first “big break” in Texas came in the spring of 1998. The international opera community was abuzz with news of Houston Grand Opera’s new experimental “multi-media modular stage,” allowing for outdoor performance of grand opera. The exciting premiere brought reporters from all over the world to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas. The featured work that night was HGO’s memorable “Carmen,” and with 5500 people in attendance, it was the largest single audience ever for an HGO production. Reviewing the event for Houston Community Newspapers (See Villager June 3, 1998) was a great thrill, but no greater than the one I had last week.
Once again, Houston was the center of the world opera stage. Renowned soprano, Renée Fleming had selected Houston Grand Opera for her own debut as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Widely considered to be the finest American soprano of our time, Fleming drew opera buffs and reporters from around the globe to this very gala Opening Night where ticket prices were as high as $325.00! Violetta is a role she will repeat this fall to open the Metropolitan Opera season in New York, so many eager eyes were watching to see how she would do. No one was disappointed.
The black-tie elegance and fashion of the audience set the stage for the very opulent and elegant production that would follow. And in a time of war, there was a particular thrill as this audience of music lovers stood to sing a most impressive “Star Spangled Banner.” But from that moment on, the evening belonged very much to the extraordinarily talented, and very beautiful, Fleming. With Music Director, Patrick Summers conducting, HGO’s orchestra superbly performed the exquisite Prelude. It is one of the greatest delights in all of music literature, and it has been said that it “…gets your attention with a whisper of sound.”
The curtain rises on a 19th century party scene that looked like it had been plucked from some classic painting of the Parisian upper class at play. The set and costume designs of Desmond Heeley were breathtakingly beautiful, while the lighting designs of Christine Binder were sheer perfection. Violetta, in a stunning gown of wine-red velvet, and joined by the rousing and robust chorus of revelers, sings so beautifully that it belies the fact that she is dying of consumption. (La Traviata is translated as “The Frail One.”) Sung in the original Italian, the opera was presented with “surtitles” above the stage for those desiring a translation. With glasses in hand, the partygoers sing, “…wine banishes reality…joys will swiftly vanish.” But the joys of this night of opera will linger long in memory.
Paired with Miss Fleming was Englishman, Paul Charles Clark in the role of her lover, Alfredo. The richness of his superb tenor voice made me wonder if his appearance was getting too little attention in the shadow of the divine diva. There was pure artistry from both in the lovely Act I duet of “’Tis With Love I Palpitate”. Fleming’s impassioned “Sempre Libera,” (“Always Free”) closed Act I with a crown jewel of operatic magnificence that was beyond description.
In Act II the setting is the country house where the lovers now reside. The scene is wrapped in a lacy garden courtyard that embraces the stage. Violetta has a surprise visit from Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Irish baritone, Bruno Caproni). He tells her that her affair with his son is jeopardizing his daughter’s impending marriage, and Violetta agrees to end the relationship. Caproni has a deeply resonant voice that brings a thunderous and dark vibration to the thickening plot as he sings the aria, “Pure as an Angel.” Fleming’s passionate “Ama mi, Alfredo,” is capped by a heartbreaking duet of father and son that is full of vocal power.
Taking place at the home of Violetta’s friend, Flora (Angela Niederloh), the festive party scene that follows has a mysterious glow, and looks like it is contained in a bubble of rich, red wine. It features elegant dances with Spanish flair (choreographed by Priscilla Nathan-Murphy), and brilliant choral ensemble singing from the large cast. Superb full-cast counterpoints highlight the musical bliss of the insult song, “Oh, Infamia Orrible,” that results when Alfredo throws money at Violetta’s feet believing she no longer loves him.
In Act III Violetta is dying. The scene is so realistic that one has the unmistakable feeling of being in attendance at a deathbed. Fleming’s skill as an actress is clearly the equal of her great talent as a singer, and there is an angelic and fragile transcendence in the delicacy of her singing as one at death’s door. Praying for God’s forgiveness, she sings with perfect clarity and heart wrenching intensity. There is a bird-like purity in her voice as the lovers sing the tragic final duet, “We Shall Flee From Paris, O Beloved.” Perhaps Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best:
“There is sweet music here that softer falls than petals from blown roses on the grass.”
Final performances of “La Traviata” will be April 29th, May 2nd, and a matinee on May 4th. For information call 1-800-62-OPERA or visit www.houstongrandopera.org online.
(The Courier 4.27.03)