‘La Traviata’ revival expressive, impressive

Corrado Rovaris
Philadelphia Inquirer

By Peter Dobrin

An age-speckled, slightly tilted mirror looms over the action in the Opera Company of Philadelphia's La Traviata, a second revival of the troupe's original 1997 production.

Gorgeous, if slightly less sparkling than it could be, it's an apt framing of Robert B. Driver's production. At Friday's opening at the Academy of Music, this La Traviata didn't offer a Violetta of devastating emotional range, but a merely impressive one. The production is an update - with 1920s Parisian costuming by Richard St. Clair - but a respectful one. The Opera Company orchestra was flexible and expressive under the leadership of music director Corrado Rovaris, the chorus rock solid.

You might take these assets for granted if you forgot for a moment that Verdi's standard was the undoing of Leonard Slatkin last month at the Metropolitan Opera. La Traviata may be in everyone's consciousness - it consistently jockeys with La Bohème and Tosca as the opera most performed in the United States - but that doesn't mean doing it well happens automatically.

Here it felt natural. Rovaris perhaps indulged too much slowing of certain vocal lines, but those were little corners of an aria or two. For vast stretches, he found taut purpose and significant dips into emotional meaning. Exaggerated affectations were banished; the gypsies at Flora's party didn't succumb to excessive vocal slides but were a tight, disciplined ensemble. Happily, you couldn't decide who deserved more credit - Verdi or Rovaris - in an ensemble scene joined by the chorus in which every line was discernible.

Though a revival, this La Traviata brought two significant company debuts - soprano Leah Partridge as the fallen woman Violetta and Charles Castronovo her Alfredo. Considerably bigger names have done less with "Sempre libera." She had the notes - even the traditional high E-flat near the end - even if musically you wanted her to look a little harder for some of the aria's giddy helium. Some of her careful mien may evaporate post-opening-night.

What was particularly wonderful about Partridge was her ability to maintain a vocal glow of great presence even in spots where Violetta was defeated ("Addio, del passato"). No spoiler here, but the way she handles the end was smart and utterly effecting.

Castronovo didn't have an enormous voice, but his focused sound and expressiveness grew throughout the evening. His father, Germont, was sung by Mark Stone, whose sound could be stiff. A number of students and recent graduates from the Curtis Institute of Music and Academy of Vocal Arts dotted the cast in smaller roles, most notably Allison Sanders as Flora. The part and Sander's voice blur the line between soprano and mezzo - the Curtis student is a declared soprano of late - hence the lovely, saturated sound.

Paul Shortt's sets stayed within traditional bounds, his colors telegraphing reckless passion in the red party scene, or, with wan hues and louvered sunlight at the end, what it means to be a desolate heroine who just happens to be, vocally speaking, in terrific shape.