Cher Public

Lost soul

Opera Philadelphia offered Verdi’s La traviata on October 9, the day before the composer’s 202nd birthday, with Lisette Oropesa singing “The Lost One”—the meaning of “traviata.”  

That’s an odd word, but an indication that Verdi had to be careful about linking his work to the dangerously explicit La Dame aux camélias, a French best-seller and hit play about a young courtesan who loves too well and dies too young of a disease that in women was attributed to sexual excess. (The opera was written in 1853 but the etiology of TB, or phthisis  as it was called—tisi in Italian—was not understood until 1882. There was no certain cure until 1946.)

This run was Oropesa’s first attempt at the role. Of Cuban descent, she is a native of New Orleans and a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann program. Pretty and girlish with an elegant figure, she was a last minute Susanna in the new production of Le nozze di Figaro there in 2007, and was an especially lovely Nannetta in Falstaff in 2013. Those are difficult parts but Violetta is a diva role, one of the most demanding and exposed in the popular repertory and one that most female aspirants to operatic glory have tried.

It’s long and ranges from difficult coloratura in act one to high romantic outpourings later and has one of the most sustained death scenes in Italian opera (La traviata was the first opera where a character died from a specific disease, however unspeakable it was at the time.) It is a serious challenge that needs everything a soprano has.

Oropesa is by nature a typical “coloratura”. Her voice is high set and light. After warming up, thereby losing a slight flutter, she showed a most beautiful but soft-focused one. Many “born” coloraturas have an edge to the sound and those who try heavier roles often cultivate that edge, called “squillo” in Italian. It helps them get their voices out into a big theater—and the Academy of Music, even if about half the size of the Met, is vast enough. Squillo allows a lighter soprano some thrust and bite in the more dramatic eruptions this role requires.

Oropesa, though, has kept a sweet and limpid sound. She reminded me from time to time of the wonderful but forgotten Graziella Pareto, a very famous “coloratura” Violetta, who Thomas Beecham remarked was the best he had ever seen. Oropesa’s tone has a built in caress, a timbre that has a penumbra of vulnerability that draws one’s ear rather than attacking it—something that Marilyn Horne once said was the mark of a great singer.

Yes, Oropesa managed a very good but not excessively showy “Sempre libera” in act one and even ended it with a clean, easy E-flat in alt, but one taken in tempo and as part of the line. That, however, was not the most memorable part of that act. She sang the recitative “È strano! È strano!” with extreme sensitivity, then phrased an exquisitely soft, fine-spun “Ah fors’è lui”. It was musically immaculate and emotionally inward.

She “graded” dynamics, something that is now very rare. She moved from very, very soft, through soft, to a slight forte, saving her loudest singing for the outpouring of “Ah quel amor, quel amore ch’è palpito.” She was enacting in vocal terms Violetta’s intimate awareness of the strange emotions she is feeling and then, finally, coming to an understanding, that unexpectedly, in a second, her life has changed. It was beautiful singing and it was utterly human. (Also, in practical terms, it allowed for the climactic phrases to sound with relative force.)

After act one, Violetta becomes a lyric role, testing a light soprano with outbursts and extended singing in the middle. For the most part Oropesa did very well. In the long scene with her lover’s father (sung here by Stephen Powell) she handled her voice expertly, spinning out long lines, projecting by making the most of shifting rhythms.  For example, she marked the 6/8 rhythm in “Non sapete, quale affetto…”, taking seriously the markings vivacissimo/agitato and actually executing the pattern of two staccato eighths followed by two linked 16ths and quarter note, the first 16th accented) rather than artificially darkening or forcing her voice.

Once again, she graded dynamics, despite her soft-grained sound, noting the marking of p for the first phrase and pp for its repetition. The spin on her tone, the arched phrases and a simple sincerity were wonderful in “Dite alla giovane,” though to be sure a little more heft wouldn’t have come amiss either there or in the following more dynamic section (which begins with one of those outbursts, the cry of “Morrò”. But it’s true that clear words, strong rhythms and firmly judged phrases can send a voice “travelling” through the theater.

The one point where she did less well involved partially, stage business, and partially, a vocal climax. There is the great section, almost not vocal with its heartbreaking clarinet solo, where Violetta writes her letter lying to Alfredo about no longer loving him. Here Oropesa needed either a director’s help, or simply more experience.

I remember this being devastating as played by Victoria de los Angeles, Patricia Brooks (actually in vocal format not so different from Oropesa and the most moving Violetta I’ve ever seen) and Renata Scotto. But it was somewhat anonymous here. Alfredo (Alek Shrader) interrupts her and Violetta, knowing she is bidding him farewell, with all her force begs him to love her with the same abandon with which she loves him (“Amami Alfredo”). Though Oropesa hung onto Shrader for dear life for extra support and the conductor, Corrado Rovaris, kept the orchestra way down, she didn’t have enough voice for this. It is the one moment she clearly needs to solve to go on to bigger houses.

In the second scene of act two, Flora’s party, where Violetta and Alfredo have a violent confrontation, directorial and design issues didn’t help her, though her precise beautifully tuned and shaped entrance in the finale on “Alfredo, Alfredo…” was wonderful.

Similar production problems afflicted act three. She was not memorable reading the letter, but Rovaris allowed her both verses of “Addio del passato” and once again she showed enormous artistry. It wasn’t only her death-haunted tone floating through a house holding its breath, it was her musical imagination and elegance that landed.

It sounded as though she had listened to Luisa Tetrazzini’s recording of (both verses of) this aria. That legendary artist does not decorate the second verse (as Verdi might have expected) but she does make much of the different words, using rhythm and phrasing to make slight but telling differences and to build a powerful effect. Oropesa, though she had her own ideas, did much the same and very movingly indeed. Her exquisite phrasing of the lines, her perfect placing of the E5s, and her inwardness were wonderful. She and Shrader were marvelous when they really blended their voices in “Parigi o cara”.

Hemmed in by a big bed on a shallow stage she perhaps made less of “Ah, gran dio, morir si giovane” but she did well enough and her floating through Violetta’s giving Alfredo her picture was heartbreaking

Violetta has one final big moment which begins with her speaking. She says that she feels revived, reborn, and cries, “I am returning to life.” Who can forget Angela Gheorghiu in Richard Eyre’s production at Covent Garden running around the stage during this section, a behavior that had been observed in actual patients dying of TB in the 19th century)? But Oropesa was left on her own to fall sideways, with the big bed right behind her!

Schrader has a beautiful but light voice which he pushed to make a bigger sound. He is a wonderful musician, though. “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” never gets much applause (it didn’t for Pavarotti or Alfredo Kraus either) but it’s murder to sing, and he phrased it, kept excellent time and stayed in tune, all actually rare. He also managed a real if short high C at the end of his cabaletta. He’s a nice looking man who was directed to slouch and pout like an adolescent and in scene one of act two was stuck with a tennis racket. Also he either jumped his cue or his entrance in act three was badly botched—he was standing awkwardly on stage long before the character—supposedly running to embrace Violetta—needs to be.

Powell is one of the wonderful American baritones the Met casting people seem to ignore but who is infinitely better than the carnival barkers they usually hire. He may have been a little unwell on this occasion because he clamped a heavy cover on the top of his voice—but when he opened for a few moments here and there his familiar magnificence of sound rang out. He too was oddly directed. I have never seen Violetta and Giorgio Germont hug so much in my life!

In the best versions of this famous confrontation I’ve witnessed Germont either doesn’t embrace her seems to do so with revulsion. Doesn’t anyone look at the score? Heartbroken, Violetta asks at the end of the scene (marked adagio with pausa lunga—a long pause—marked before she sings, “Do you understand the sacrifice I’ve made for you? It is the end of my life.” He grunts two Fs, one after each statement she makes. He can’t wait to get out.

Given all the vocal schools in town, this company can usually count on good voices in smaller roles. Here though, the best was the fine sounding Andrew Bogard as Doctor Grenvil (whom Alfredo is asked to rough up, I guess because he hasn’t cured an incurable disease!)

Feraris has been an uneven conductor in my experience, superlative here and wonderful in last season’s magnificent Yardbird but jittery in Don Carlo and routine in Nabucco.

It’s not the easiest task judging regional opera productions. One can never know how much rehearsal there was, and whether what there was mainly went to blocking rather than an exploration of characters and their interactions. The sets imported from Bucharest must have been a bargain, as they added nothing and the concept of the walls closing in simply trapped the singers into impossibly awkward positions in the last two scenes.

The action was updated to the 1950’s when TB would have been curable. But why the camp of having Violetta’s female party guests do the Macarena at the start of the Brindisi? Where were the gypsy girls at Flora’s party? Could the company not afford even a couple of pretty extras? But there were some male extras who as “matadors” stripped their shirts off, all of this with no room for them to suggest availability either to the women or some of the men, which surely is the point of the number.

One can no longer escape the staging of the prelude to act one of Traviata but why wreck the marvelous prelude to act three, giving Annina palpably fake “business,” when the emphasis should be on the orchestra’s depiction of Violetta’s frailty?

But the news here wasn’t the iffy production. It was Oropesa, a remarkable artist with stunning gifts and already a touch of greatness.

Photos: Kelly & Massa

  • Feldmarschallin
  • PCally

    Hope oropessa returns to the met soon, I would so love to hear her Sophie, especially since there doesn’t seem to be much competition at the moment.

    • steveac10

      I would guess part of the reason she’s not on the roster is that she was ready to move on from the likes of Sophie and TPTB at the Met think otherwise.

  • antikitschychick

    wonderful review by mrsjohnclaggart; so sorry to post about this so late but just wanted to say that I attended the free screening last night at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park with a group of friends. We all really enjoyed the performance despite the sudden temperature drop. The snacks and wine definitely helped lol. I also ate a nutella & strawberries waffle that was being sold by a nearby food truck that was delicious. For anyone who hasn’t tried that, you’re missing out!

    The screening was actually supposed to take place October 3rd but was rescheduled because of inclement weather. A good number of people still showed up, which was great, although some left after the intermission. Overall I agree with mrsjc’s assessment of Lisette Oropesa although as much as I liked her singing, I was more impressed with her acting! My friends thought she was convincing too; in terms of believability and sheer commitment, “se la comió” as we say :-P.

    She also has a very unique voice. It’s definitely a lighter coloratura voice but her top notes don’t sound ‘chirpy’ and her vibrato is actually slow, which make her pp notes plangent-sounding, a la Callas. (The tone & weight of the voices are very different obvs but their approach to high notes is similar imho). But then her middle and lower registers are flexible and agile but with a warm, full bodied sound (at least that’s how it sounded through the transmission). She does sound a bit like Beverly Sills, although I kept thinking ‘omg there is a soprano she sounds just like’ to the point of it being uncanny but I couldn’t remember who it was at first. Then somewhere during her big Act 1 arias (which were both fabulous) it hit me: she sounds A LOT like Angela Gheorghiu! At least to me, especially in the middle register, if only slightly lighter.

    Admittedly, I’m not really a fan of AG so I haven’t heard her much, save for a few videos on Youtube, and that’s probably why it took me a few minutes to recall who it was I thought she sounded like. Perhaps Lady Abbado can weigh in on whether she agrees or not? I’m not in a position to make comparisons as I’v heard neither live, but I do think it’s good she sounds like AG, since AG has a very beautiful voice and has always been capable of very fine legato singing. Lisette seems to have those same qualities. Additionally, her acting was pretty stellar throughout, especially during the final act. The way she sang Addio del Passato lying down on the bed, with her eyes glistening into the camera while looking absolutely frail and broken physically yet alive spiritually and emotionally was heart breaking. Her portrayal was also very believable, not just because she looked the part but because she was 100 percent committed and giving it her all while also letting the music speak for itself. The letter reading was probably underwhelming in the house because she spoke softly and let the ends of phrases fade into a voiceless whisper, but for the camera it worked well, although I don’t think having her read only the first few lines from the actual letter and then recite the rest from memory is the best approach to that since it is supposed to be a letter reading. I agree that with more work with other directors she could be stellar.

    During curtain calls she looked very moved and appreciative of the audience’s response which was touching. True, there were moments where she could have used a bit more voice, and the Amami Alfredo sounded a tad thinner than it maybe should, though in the broadcast it didn’t sound like she was covered by the orchestra. Her costumes were lovely although I don’t think the way she had her hair styled in Act 1 was very flattering. Loved the slit the Act I blue dress had though!

    Alek Shrader was indeed beefing up his sound in the middle register to give the impression of a weightier tenor voice but I think this was a misguided choice, given that when he sang the high notes they didn’t sound very high at all; they lacked gravitas and/or power, which was very anticlimactic and at one point during Act II he almost cracked (poor guy!). He fared better in Act III during the party scene at Flora’s but it was still an underwhelming performance vocally although his acting was good and, well, he’s cute.

    Stephen Powell, whom I was not familiar with was EXCELLENT as GG and I fully concur with mrsjc about him. The Met needs to hire him yesterday. People cheered loudly for him and the cheers were well deserved! A very fine, elegant singer.

    The supporting roles were also performed well and the orchestra sounded great too. Overall it was an enjoyable performance. The only detractions came from the production which, although aesthetically pleasing was dramatically flawed and bland. A friend remarked that they were kind of going for a Great Gatsby-esque approach, and it indeed did have a kind of ‘nouveau riche’ sensibility, which came off as kind of campy as mrsjc suggests. Another friend used the word ‘cliche’ although he said the performance was still dramatically effective. Most puzzling were some poor dramatic decisions like having Alfredo pace around with a tennis racket during the beginning of Act II, and have Violetta’s death bed be so luxurious, one wondered why she didn’t sell her (non-blood stained) sheets for an extra 20 luigi. Having said that, I did think having Lisette sing on top of the piano during Act I was fun, and having Alfredo be given a good smack down during the Act III confrontation scene was an interesting, if OTT touch, given that it served as a kind of ironic role reversal, making him the social outcast at that climactic moment. It did make his character seem rather dimwitted and hapless, and to his credit Schrader played it as effectively as one might imagine it could be played. He was appropriately affectionate during Parigi o Cara and was genuinely tearing up during the final moments which was touching although after Violetta’s death, his grimace looked more like a grin and my friend remarked that it looked like he was laughing. Perhaps he was really happy to be done with the performance and it showed lol. It’s a shame there wasn’t much of a spark between him and Lisette during Act 1, albeit this is extremely difficult to convey unless the performers have off the wall/crazy chemistry. I’ve only ever seen AN and RV pull that off.

    All in all am very happy for Lisette and hope her career continues to flourish.

    OT: Missed the Otello broadcast today but will either go see the encore performance or watch it online.