by Elias Berezin, Lister reviewer
The mounting of an old warhorse poses great challenges (no pun intended). Now in just its sixth season, Independent Opera Company took full advantage of a wealth of young vocal talent and creative staging to give a most cogent and touching performance of Verdi’s La Traviata.
Founder and artistic director Galina Barskaya, in her informative pre-show introduction, cited the composer’s intent to present the opera in a contemporary setting as the reason for IOC’s placing this adaptation in New Orleans in the 21st century. She also discussed the continuing importance of giving old masterpieces new showings, allowing each new generation of singers to refresh past works. In his talk, director Carson Gilmore shared his view that the characters’ lack of care and empathy for one another affects their shared human experience, and how this led to his goal of underlining the superficiality in the plot’s tragedy.
When the curtain rose on the first act, the strengths of this Traviata were clear. The minimalist set and costume choices immediately revealed the time period, social setting, and relationships between the characters. Gilmore created a setting so familiar that the listener could easily relate to it – the scene might as well have been the party one attended last weekend.
Tyler Wolsten’s Alfredo was presented as a naïve young man, touchingly simple, and at times almost immature. This directly contrasted Michelle Drever’s complicated and put-upon Violetta through the vocal colors they deliberately chose to bring out the differences in their respective characters. Despite his having stepped in with little notice as a cover performer, Wolsten managed the challenges of the role as he spun lengthy and sincere lines. Drever demonstrated her prodigious skills as a singing actress, delivering dynamic singing and deliberate physical acting.
The transition between acts one and two poses a complex dramatic problem. The production must make believable Violetta’s transformation from a woman of loose morals and free living to one who wants nothing more than to live a strictly monogamous and conservative life. Drever’s characterization of Violetta solved this problem to satisfaction, through detailed character work at the end of the first act. Her voice seems built to navigate the long and flowing lines of “E strano!… Ah, fors’è lui,” as she sang with command and executed the dramatic character shifts with aplomb. She capitalized on that display of indecision in the following aria, “Sempre libera,” drawing again on her generous talent for physical portrayal. Drever’s actions, in contrast with the unwavering words of the aria, clearly revealed Violetta’s inner turmoil, while Wolsten’s honeyed tenor floated from the wings disarmingly. It was easy to imagine how the transformation over the intervening three months between acts one and two occurred.
Daniel Scofield’s Germont stole the first scene of act two, immediately casting a shadow over the picture of domestic bliss through his imposing presence. Throughout the heartbreaking scene with Violetta, during which the patriarch demands that she relinquish her love for his son, Alfredo, so that his daughter might get married successfully, Scofield’s demeanor shifted easily from controlled and calculating to genuine supplication and back again. When addressing his son, Scofield’s efforts and Wolston’s characterization combined to illustrate the distance between father and son. Scofield delivered “Di provenza il mar, il suol” intimately and without grandstanding. Throughout the scene, Scofield delicately walked the line between cold and sympathetic, delivering to the audience a father ruthless enough to say anything to achieve his ends, yet believing himself benevolent. The scene ended with a clear taste of the everyday familial frustration between Germont and Alfredo: a disconnected father struggling to relate to his immature son.
After intermission, action abruptly resumed with a bustling party featuring Rachel Labovitch’s Flora and Esteban Rivas’s Dottore using cocaine in the corner. In these large scenes, IOC’s capable chorus shone. If at times caught in flat-footed stasis, the crowd was nevertheless full of dramatic personal interactions that served to bring the action convincingly to life.
Labovitch’s socialite Flora, the party’s sultry and adept host, ably took over the stage when required and naturally yielded it again without becoming a distraction. Gilmore’s minimalist lighting, provided only by two LED panels, a single follow-spot, and the native fluorescent lights of the auditorium, was remarkably effective. With diligent use of partial blackouts and a simple red gel, he enhanced the strength of feeling in Alfredo and Violetta’s desperate fight. Drever’s nonverbal reactions during Alfredo’s scathing indictment made full use of the scene’s dramatic irony, elevating it from the commonly operatic to the heart-wrenching. For his part, Wolsten’s Alfredo evinced his own emotional conflict: enraged pain warring with immense guilt.
After a somewhat lengthy pause, the stark simplicity of act three made a jarring contrast with the rest of the opera. Amy Goymerac’s Annina made the most of otherwise limited stage time, providing a reassuring physical presence. Drever’s “Addio, bel passato” was the jewel of the opera as she held the audience rapt; it was shockingly difficult to reconcile her sickly pallor and stillness with her previously constant action. By the time of the final blackout, many sniffles were heard as audience members struggled to maintain composure.
In his first attempt at directing La Traviata, Gilmore has successfully achieved grand opera in the small-scale. With its simple and modernized costumes and sets, Gilmore’s setting removed the artificial glitz and glamor, choosing instead the mundane, the everyday, and ultimately, the relatable. It was a thespian’s “Traviata”: intimately staged, touchingly acted, and beautifully sung by a wealth of vocal talent gathered by a young company clearly building towards a bright future.
Independent Opera Company’s next offering:
Amelia Goes to the Ball/The Stoned Guest/One Penny Opera
February 23rd and 24th, 7:30pm
Nolte Hall, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church
11555 National Blvd., LA 90064
Tickets available at independentoperacompany.org