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Opera in the Outfield

Kennedy Center - Live Telecast
09/13/2008 -  and September 18, 21m, 24, 27, 30, October 2, 5m
Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
Elizabeth Futral (Violetta Valery), Arturo Chacón-Cruz (Alfredo Germont), Margaret Thompson (Flora Bervoix), Lado Ataneli (Giorgio Germont), Micaela Oeste (Annina), Yingxi Zhang (Gastone), Nathan Herfindahl (Baron Douphol), Grigory Soloviov (Marchese D’Obigny), Oleksandr Pushniak (Doctor Grenvil), Eric Rivera (Solo Dancer)
Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers, Sara Erde (Choreographer), Washington National Opera Orchestra, Stephen Gathman (Chorus Master), Dan Ettinger (Conductor)
Giovanni Agostinucci (Set and Costume Design), Joan Sullivan-Genthe (Lighting Design), Marta Domingo (Stage Director)

Elizabeth Futral

Washington National Opera opened its 2008 Fall Season with a sumptuous and superlative production of Verdi’s La Traviata. The Kennedy Center, I am sure, was filled with a glittering array of the “Who’s Who” of Washington’s social elite, dignitaries, and politicians dressed in glamorous gowns, jewels, and tuxedos. But, in truth the major event, as Placido Domingo with his board chairman, would tell the assembled audience before the curtain rose on Act I, was the happening going on across town in the newly constructed National’s Ball Park. Thanks to major corporate funding, this opening night performance of La Traviata was being simulcast live in High Definition on a huge screen in spectacular digital sound at the National’s Park to an enormous crowd gathered to enjoy and share in the event. It was WNO’s gift to the city of Washington (all seats were free of charge), and the city reciprocated with a gift of $500,000 presented to Maestro Domingo during the first intermission by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. Washington’s Mayor Adrian Fenty had envisioned the new National’s Park as not only a sports arena, but also a venue to showcase the cultural diversity of the District of Colombia. The simulcast of La Traviata was the second non-sports event to be held here. The first being the U.S. visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who presided over a High Mass in the park…not a bad act to follow for the WNO!

The simulcast was presided over by the lovely Nicole LaCroix, a Washington classical radio icon, who was charming and knowledgeable in her duties as Mistress of Ceremonies. Although rain had been predicted, the evening could not have been better. Balmy breezes wafted through the stadium and the night was clear. I must say it reminded me of hearing opera in the Arena di Verona. The expanse of the stadium itself and the summer night and casual audience helped greatly in creating this illusion. An Englishman told he thought this was a most American way to experience opera. The audience at National’s Park was most enthusiastic and noticeably young…quite young! There were families with small children and baby carriages, old folks with walkers, and high school and college age kids mostly in groups and parties. I interviewed several groups of attendees and was amazed to discover they were mostly all in their twenties. I repeatedly asked the same questions to young and old alike, and to my amazement, I always received the same answers. A few of the younger crowd had been to see an opera once or twice before but most were "newbies". When asked if they enjoyed it?… “Yes!” Would you come again? “Yes!” When asked why they had never come to see an opera before the answer was always emphatically phrased: “We simply cannot afford it…opera tickets are too expensive!” I think this says as much as anything as to why today’s operagoers are an aging, elite lot. I also asked what they thought of supertitles and would they prefer to hear the opera in English. Here was the most surprising answer: “No! It wouldn’t be opera if it were in English.” So we find that opera does have an appeal to the younger crowd, language is not a barrier, and they would go more often if they could afford it. WNO therefore is obviously doing the right thing by arranging this type of free event, especially in regards to developing new audiences. A lesson that needs to be seriously contemplated by General Directors of opera companies worldwide. Major corporate sponsors and donors for this event must also be congratulated and applauded for their support of the opera in such a visible and effective outreach program.

How was the opera itself, I hear you asking. It was superb. The conducting of Maestro Ettinger was very poetic. He has a remarkable baton technique and he elicited great control over the orchestra, drawing forth very polished and sensitive playing. Maestro Ettinger had a lot to say expressively about this opera and he filled the old war-horse with many new and enlightening details from the first notes of the Act I prelude to the very final bars of the opera. He was the perfect conductor for this work.

The production was a throwback to Visconti and Zeffirelli…opulent, romantic, and elegant. Marta Domingo’s staging was highly detailed and always on the mark. Nothing was amiss and as traditional as it was it nonetheless revealed many new types of shading in the work. She was particularly effective in the duets with Alfredo and Violetta, illustrating the passion and innocence of youth contrasted against the jaded extravagance of a world-weary courtesan. The final tableau of Violetta dying in Alfredo’s arms was very moving. Maestro Ettinger’s placement of the final chords were a magnificent help in underscoring this.

I have never been a fan of Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting for years. It is always too dark. Usually one can never see anything. Fortunately, as this production was televised, she had to turn the lights on! For my taste, this was brilliantly lit and had much to admire.

Before I get to the principal artists, I want to say a few words about the excellence of the WNO chorus, who play such an important role in Acts I and III. They were quite wonderful in their singing and acting. The opening lines of Act I for instance… “del invito trascorsa gia l’ora…voi tardaste giacomo da Flora…” is a notorious train wreck spot. When Maestro Ettinger began the opening scene with a break-neck tempo, I was sure it would be disastrous. The tenors and basses, however, quite literally “nailed it” without batting an eyelash! The casino scene was appropriately gay with the women’s coro sounding seductive in their gypsy chorus. The men were equally impressive as the toreadors. Once again, I send kudos to Maestro Gathman for his excellent preparation.

Volumes have been written on the vocal difficulties of Violetta Valery and of the three voices it takes to sing this role. For almost fifty years, Maria Callas has been the touchstone of this part and she has cast a long shadow over all sopranos who undertake the role. Certainly, Elizabeth Futral stands outside this shadow and comes as near to perfection as Violetta as we are likely to hear today. She definitely looks the part and sings and acts with a command and abandon that is most compelling. Her reckless delivery of the famous aria “Sempre Libera” which ends Act I was electrifying, and she capped it with a “Hail Mary” High Eb that was as thrilling as it was mind over voice. Her voice is not that of a leggier coloratura. She is a full lyric soprano, but she negotiated the ferociously difficult fioratura with accuracy and aplomb.

I must mention a theatrical miracle of nature, which occurred in National’s Park during this finale of Act I and caused a complete sensation. As Violetta’s party guests leave and she is left alone, the camera pulled back to give an onstage view of the full moon overlooking Violetta’s garden. At that very same moment, the clouds above National’s Park brushed aside to reveal a full moon in the heavens above the stadium. But a full moon that was exactly at the same level as the one on the screen and also the same size and color. The audience was aghast and pointed and “ooh’d” and “ah’d”. I momentarily thought it was some cheap trick of calculated theatrical lighting, but was equally aghast when I realized it was indeed a real full moon. It could not have been timed more perfectly or dramatically!

Ms. Futral’s scene with Giorgio Germont in Act II was among the evening’s highlights, with both voices rising to vocal and emotional heights. The great concertato that ends Act III (Alfredo, Alfredo in questo core) was extremely moving. Her usage of rubato in this tenderest of melodies was heart wrenching. So too was her delivery of the famous Letter Scene of Act IV. She gave a most melodramatic reading of the letter and employed beautifully floated pianissimi in the ensuing aria, “Addio del passato” (farewell to the past). Washington has not heard a Violetta of this caliber since Beverly Sills sang the role at Wolf Trap in the late 1970’s.

As her young lover Alfredo Germont, Arturo Chacón-Cruz proved to be another inspiration in casting. He was ardent and intense in his portrayal and his singing was mellifluous and secure. His vocal delivery in the duets was beautifully balanced with Ms. Futral. His best singing occurred with the inclusion of the oft-deleted cabaletta, “O mio rimorso” which follows the Act II aria, “Dei miei bollenti spiriti.” He displayed abundant strength and security is this aria, rising to a brilliantly sustained high C on the final note. The fact that he is also young and quite handsome only intensified the great impact he made throughout the evening.

Lado Ataneli was the ideal Giorgio Germont both in voice and physical appearance. A true Verdi baritone with a round and darkly resonant voice, he sang with great style and generosity of tone. Mr. Ataneli is a very communicative actor and was able with much clarity to show his changes in attitude towards Violetta and his paternal protective nature with Alfredo. He was memorable in his singing of “Di Provenza” and sang the final cadenza as Verdi wrote it, with two separate attacks on the F# (Ma….Ma…). This is too strenuous for most baritones and they usually opt for only one attack. I thought it a pity his cabaletta to this aria was deleted. It would have been a great pleasure to hear him sing it.

It was certainly an impressive opening night for the Washington National Opera, both in the Opera House and in the Outfield. It augers well for a successful season and I look forward to the upcoming production of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles. As the cast for La Traviata filed onstage for one last bow they all donned Nationals’ Baseball Caps as a salute to the many spectators in the Ball Park. I could not help but remember what one patron yelled out into National Park after the singing of the National Anthem…
“Play Ball!”

Micaele Sparacino



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