REVIEW: ‘La Traviata’ among the highest notes of the year
Okay, they’re not the easiest words to get your mouth around. But the soprano’s unforgettable portrayal of Violetta is reason in itself to see Opera Theatre of the Rockies’ production of “La Traviata” at the Pikes Peak Center.
Not that Zmolek is alone on the stage. As Alfredo, Violetta’s passionate, jealous lover, Joel Burcham matches Zmolek phrase for phrase. And just about everyone – and everything – else in this production hits the right notes, from conductor Christopher Zemliauskas’s sensitive and stylish orchestral accompaniment, to the crisp and powerful chorus, to the opulent diagonal sets from the University of Colorado opera department.
The simple and sentimental story is based on “La dame aux Camélias” by Alexander Dumas, fils: Alfredo and Violetta fall in love, Alfredo’s father convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo for the sake of his family honor, Alfredo misunderstands and publicly shames Violetta, time passes, and the lovers’ joyful reunion is cut short by Violetta’s death. It would be melodrama were it not for Verdi’s extraordinary music and genius for musical characterization.
Few operas rely so heavily on their leads, and Zmolek and Burcham amply repay the faith that artistic director Martile Rowland has placed in them. In a hall as large as the Pikes Peak Center, most singers struggle just to be heard, but Zmolek fills the hall with ease, her high notes floating into the balcony seemingly effortlessly. Her tone is golden, her sense of long line is impeccable, and there’s no strain from high “C” down. Dozens of details enliven her characterization, from the way she spits out “Etardi!” – “It’s too late!” – to her heart-piercing pianissimo at “Cosi alla misera” in Act 2, as she realizes what her fate is to be.
Zmolek’s Violetta is even more striking considering it’s her first time as one of opera’s greatest tragic heroines. She will only get better.
Burcham has a velvety, seamless tone that’s never forced. The details of his seasoned interpretation aren’t as striking as Zmolek’s, but there are a few tours-de-force, such as the rise and fall in volume at the end of his Act 2 aria.
As Giorgio Germont, the father who comes between them, Jacob Lassetter has a commanding stage presence and a ringing, authoritative tone, but his voice lacks Zmolek’s and Burcham’s focus.
The rest of the cast as a whole probably has less to sing than the least of these three roles; but the other singers make the most of their brief opportunities, from Jessica Oliver’s big-voiced maid, Annina, to Thomas Erik Angerhofer’s sinister Barone Douphol.
The mastery of Zemliauskas and the orchestra was evident from the first bars – heard again at the beginning of the final act – which created a mood both gentle and tragic. The rhythm was supple throughout, and Zemliauskas always puts the singers first, always supporting but never overpowering.
Add Gypsy Ames’s lavish costumes and Pamila Gray’s atmospheric, unobtrusive lighting and you have the most satisfying opera production at the Pikes Peak Center in many years.
“La Traviata” was the last of 17 operas that Verdi wrote in a 12-year period that he later referred to as his “anni di galera” – “years as a galley slave.” But there’s no sign of exhaustion in the music – in fact, for sheer energy it’s hardly matched on the operatic stage, as one nimble melody follows another. It’s tight, colorful and focused, and this tight, colorful, focused production does it full justice.