Sunday, October 16, 2005

With its current production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the Virginia Opera has once again exceeded expectations. Beloved of opera fans everywhere, “Traviata” is so frequently performed that it can get worn around the edges. But on Friday and again yesterday at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax City, the company freshened it up by successfully casting a radiant, relative unknown in the difficult title role.

“La Traviata” can loosely be translated as “the fallen woman,” and its title character is based on the life of a real courtesan who became a mistress of the rich and famous in mid-19th century Paris. One of her lovers was Alexandre Dumas fils, who wrote both a novel and a play (“La Dame aux Camelias”) based on her history and tragic death from consumption at the age of 23.

Verdi borrowed the plot for one of his greatest and most moving masterpieces, socially controversial in its time. The composer — no observer of marital conventions himself — made his courtesan-heroine, Violetta Valery, sophisticated but vulnerable, a good but impoverished girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She is luckier than most. Her patrons prove wealthy and generous, and her sophisticated salons become the toast of Paris.

But the consumptive Violetta has the misfortune of falling in love with immature young Alfredo Germont. When, prodded by his father to spike the romance for the sake of his family’s social standing, Violetta dutifully throws him aside, the wheels of tragedy are set in motion.

Violetta sings some of the most complicated arias Verdi ever devised, and the role is often a steppingstone for a soprano attempting to move from the lyric repertoire toward grand opera. In a brilliantly intuitive stroke, conductor Peter Mark chose luminous young soprano Cristina Nassif to sing his Violetta. Her deeply affecting yet powerful performance infuses this production with genuine romantic fire and tragic passion.

After a few uncertain bars early in Act I, Miss Nassif blossomed. Her luscious, well-supported vocal gifts bloomed magnificently, swiftly transforming her into a Violetta to remember with love and admiration. Displaying great emotional maturity and a seemingly unlimited vocal range, she melded effortlessly with her character and made the magic happen, made the audience believe in a way that happens infrequently even with the greatest of companies. With these performances, the gifted Miss Nassif — only in her late 20s — could be on the threshold of a truly brilliant career.

Adding to the quality of this production was Grant Youngblood, who sang the role of Old Germont, probably Verdi’s most deeply disliked villain. But, with great conviction and a clean, deeply penetrating baritone, Mr. Youngblood added considerable nuance to his character.

As Alfredo, tenor Daniel Snyder revealed an accurate, articulate voice that seemed, paradoxically, to lack dimension, particularly in the ensembles. Likewise, baritone Scott Root in the role of the Marquis d’Obigny. Such faults were more than offset, however, by the sensitive playing of the Virginia Opera Orchestra under the baton of Mr. Mark.

This production now moves to Richmond for its final performances. But if the company continues to maintain this level of quality, it might consider a few extra dates at GMU next season before heading off so quickly to the hinterlands.


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