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Benefits from Intimate Setting

Palo Alto
Lucie Stern Theatre
10/13/2000 -  and 14, 15, 20, 21, 22, October 2000
Giuseppe Verdi : La Traviata
Barbara Divis/Pamela Hicks (Violetta Valery), Jonathan Boyd/Lars Mellander (Alfredo Germont), Richard Rovin/Michael Morris (Giorgio Germont), Susan Squires Cox (Flora Bervoix), Christopher Fernandez (Gastone, Viscount of Letorieres), Otak Jump (Baron Douphol), Paul Thompson (Doctor Grenvil), Jesse Merlin (Marquis d’Obigny), Annika Backstrom (Annina), Dan Armistead (Giuseppe)
West Bay Opera Orchestra and Chorus: Mary Chun (Conductor)
Rafal Klopotowski (Stage Director)

Despite opera's image as entertainment on a grand scale with massive choruses and towering scenery, the reality is that may operas have at their centers personal stories that benefit from the intimate setting of a small theatre. West Bay Opera has been bringing just such experiences to opera goes for forty-five years now and their newest production of Verdi's La Traviata reaps the benefits of the proximity of the singers to the audience at the Lucie Stern Theatre.

The emotional journey of Violetta Valery, a Parisian Courtesan, as she discovers love and surrenders to it, only to have to sacrifice it and suffer the agonizing loss springs vividly to life in stage director Rafal Kloptowski's staging. The action is kept downstage and Peter Crompton's flexible unit set keeps the story on a human scale.
Soprano Barbara Divis returns to the title role having recently sung it in Mendocino (and before that in San Jose) with an increasing awareness of the role's depth and complexity. Divis is at her best in the second act scene with Giorgio Germont (Richard Rovin), her lover's father. This scene, which forms the dramatic and emotional core of the opera, finds Divis responsive to the vocal demands with a soaring lyric freedom, intelligent phrasing, clear diction and attention to dynamic nuances. She also explores the emotional nuances, occasionally powering over some of the more delicate, vulnerable moments, but more often on target with the music and drama. In "Non sapete quale affetto" where Verdi's broken phrases to convey a woman grasping to conceive of the enormous sacrifice Germont asks of her, Divis barely recognizes the rests and the effect is of a woman more defiant than stunned. But as the scene develops, her emotional range fills out the character admirably. And on the big lyric moments such when she asks Alfredo to love her, "Amami, Alfredo, amami quant'io t'amo", Divis's voice has all the power, spin and immediacy to make the moment ignite with fervency.

As the object of her passion, tenor Jonathan Boyd displayed a pleasing, clearly focused tenor with plenty of power and evenness between registers. While he dodged the top "C" at the end of his cabaletta ""O mio rimorso! O infamia", he sang the section, and the proceeding aria with fresh tone and unforced tone. Aside from a few tricky moments singing with too much pressure in the passagio, Boyd sang with security and style. His vocal ease was complimented by an easy, relaxed stage presence and convincing rapport with Divis.

In the third major role in La Traviata, Rovin was hard pressed to match Divis and Boyd's accomplishments. Rovin has a sense of the musical style for the role, but his faulty vocal technique with a soft palate locked to high and a swallowed placement, robbed the role of much of its credibility. The connection between physical freedom and vocal freedom, or the absence thereof, was also apparent in his stiff, unwieldy presence. Such stiffness may suit the role at the onset, the lack of variety within the performance left the role one-dimensional.

Of the supporting roles, Susan Squires Cox's Flora Bervoix, Christopher Fernandez's Gastone, and Annika Backstrom's Annina were the standouts. They each displayed the kind of solid vocalism, stage presence and dramatic understanding to create a complete character from a few well-chosen gestures.

The West Bay Opera chorus, the occasional opening night coordination problems aside, sounded well rehearsed and contributed to the two party scenes with vigor and a well-blended sound. The women were to be particularly commended for gamely wearing some of the most unflattering costumes this view has seen in La Traviata.

The chorus also provided the dancing in the second act, and their efforts were well rehearsed and worked well for the most part. But the decision to have the women carry tambourines without ever actually using them while the percussionist played one off-stage, created a weird aural effect that called attention to itself.

Costume designer Leon E. Wiebers showed little regards for taste, style or his singers' physiques in a series of misguided, distractingly ugly designs. Rather than looking rejuvenated from the effects of true love, in the first scene of Act II, Divis looked ready for the grave in a scraggly wig and forest green over garment that did nothing for her coloring. The men fared pretty well, being in formal wear for the most part, but the costumes were no match for Crompton's airy, simple settings. Chad Bonaker's lighting got out of hand in the second scene of the second act which looked more like a Halloween party with glaring orange and black, but was otherwise, resourceful and evocative.

In the pit, music director Mary Chun obtained a polished, balanced sound from the West Bay Opera orchestra, but had problems balancing volume between stage and pit. Her pacing frequently failed to support the singers and was often mechanical and rushed. The finale to the second act suffered particularly from this and failed to build to the kind of musical climax it should.

But this La Traviata was about the characters and especially about Violetta. And with the focus on her character, the intimate setting for the production, and Divis's generous performance, the opening night audience responded with enthusiasm.

Kelly Snyder



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