Cincinnati Opera closes a stellar season

Hockey has hat tricks, meaning three goals by one player. Baseball has grand-slam homers that clean the bases and sweep in four runs.

Three! Four! Five!

Hockey has hat tricks, meaning three goals by one player. Baseball has grand-slam homers that clean the bases and sweep in four runs. Well, the 2008 Cincinnati Opera (CO) season will go into the books as Five in the Sky. Five soprano debuts. Five triumphs.

Actually, one was a debut in a leading role by a soprano who had sung with CO once before — but it was a minor role in a mostly forgettable production that I’m choosing to forget about. In reverse chronology, No. 5 is Eglise Gutierrez who this week embodies the spirit, the beauty and the tragedy of Verdi’s Violetta (to say nothing yet of her warm, rounded, fully-fruited high notes) in La Traviata.

No. 4 and 3 were the women at the top of the cast list in that magical CO premiere of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas. At last, a contemporary opera with actual, lyrical, listenable music. At last, a contemporary opera with a discernable if quirky plot and dimensioned characters. In the title role Alexandra Coku was every attractive, clearly incised thing one can expect of an opera diva playing an opera diva. In a supporting role as a journalist who first eschews, then embraces romance, Shana Blake Hill was as astonishing as the opera itself — and, with tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz soared through the score’s most exhilarating moment — she dreaming of the book she will write, he anticipating life as a pilot. It was musical magic.

At No. 2, there was the diminutive but powerful Sara Coburn as a bride driven into madness in Donizetti’s Lucie de Lammermoor. Lucie defines operatic tragedy — beauty trapped in the wheels of fate. Coburn delivered the expressive range and absolute clarity with which soprano roles should be sung. When, at the opening night of La Traviata, CO Artistic Director Evans Mirageas announced that Coburn will return in the 2011 season, a thunder of approving applause swept Music Hall.

Debut No. 1 was Shu-Ying Li as Madame Butterfly. No drifting, weeping victim she. This was a Butterfly in charge, both musically and dramatically, embracing her demise — all purpose, no tears.

As I said, five debuts, five triumphs.

Now to the most recent one: La Traviata. There’s more to it than just the skillful, faceted, brilliantly sung core performance by Mme. Guiterrez. She’s well supported and excellently dueted by tenor Richard Leech as suitor Alfredo Germont and by baritone Phillippe Rouillon as Alfredo’s resolute father, among several others. And all of them are surrounded by an enormous, sumptuous, brand new but comfortably old-fashioned production that’s all gilt, crystal, glitter and velvet all the way.

Alexander Dumas wrote a celebrated novel about a courtesan or demimondaine, a woman of the Parisian half world of the 1850s. Yes, a prostitute but of a very refined order, functioning at the edge of high society. Dumas’ novel became La Traviata. It also became the film, Camille. Quoting Wikipedia: “The defining aspects of the demimondaine were an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, easily surpassing that of most other wealthy women of their day, because of the steady income they made in cash and gifts from their various lovers. Internally, their lifestyle was an eclectic mixture of sharp business acumen, social skills, and hedonism.”

Key words for the character of Violetta Valery: Business acumen. Social skills. Hedonism.

Key word for designer Allen Charles Klein and director Bliss Herbert: Extravagant. There’s an over-the-top muchness about the sets and costumes that’s exactly right for the story.

At the outset, Violetta is what she describes in her famous Act One aria, Sempre libera (Always free) — an independent woman, a wealthy woman, respected for her success — a brain-ruled woman with her heart carefully unengaged. Then she meets Alfredo. He demands that she love him. Can she, she wonders? It’s a new and frightening thought for her. And, well, she should be frightened. Allowing her heart to become engaged is her undoing. She can’t function as a courtesan and she’s not welcome in respectable society. Conveniently, Dumas and Verdi give her consumption, that operatic disease that allows the soprano to expire after a reasonable amount of lingering and still get the curtain down on time. Dying of a broken heart takes longer.

Truly, Violetta dies of having allowed herself to love outside the demimonde.

These 155 years since its premiere in Venice, La Traviata (roughly translating as The Wayward Ones) is the third most frequently performed opera in the world after Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. With reason. Society has always been fascinated by mavericks who can be admired and respected … in secret. Women can admire a woman who succeeds on her own, thumbing her nose the while. Men can grudgingly respect, even envy, a woman who breaks the very rules that men established for obedient, respectful, retiring women. We’re all fond of outsized characters, and Violetta is positively that. But more than that, there is Verdi’s accessible, memorable score with more memorable, walk-away-humming tunes than there are in other operas, even Butterfly and Boheme.

So, another CO season it in the books. And it was dandy, just dandy.

Critic's Pick

LA TRAVIATA, presented by Cincinnati Opera, continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Music Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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