As I suggested in my preview of last weekend's Knoxville Opera production of La Traviata, popularity in operas can be a burden as well as an asset. Although it has been over 10 years since KO last staged the Verdi masterpiece, hardly a month goes by that there isn't a production of it somewhere in the United States.
The reason for this popularity is clear—Giuseppe Verdi's score is tuneful, lush, and addictively evocative; the libretto has a seemingly perfect balance of character complexity, stage simplicity, and literary intrigue. The challenge, of course, is to embrace the popularity and still find freshness and vitality in a piece that is so well-known and loved. Knoxville Opera's La Traviata met that challenge, and then some.
In a search for something different, director Keturah Stickann's staging concept departed a bit from the linear storyline, revealing the opera's Act I and Act II action in 1870 Paris and its environs as a tortured memory in the mind of Violetta Valéry, the abandoned courtesan who is dying of tuberculosis in her bed—a bed and occupant around which the action swirls for the entire evening. Verdi's sadly shimmering strings of the Prelude were perfect for supporting the idea. While there can be risks in taking novel approaches like this to well-known works, this one succeeded brilliantly in almost every way, cleverly focusing the audience's attention where it should be—on the character of Violetta—and making her inevitable death truly tragic, rather than merely melodramatic.
Knoxville Opera's Violetta was soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who, in the two years since her appearance in KO's Pagliacci, has developed her voice into a beautifully dramatic instrument that allows her to take characters in new directions. While El-Khoury does not have the extreme range of some coloratura sopranos who are known for the role, hers is a range with both power and subtle beauty. This complexity enabled her to contrast joy and resignation with believable restraint. At the end of Act I, the aria "Ah, fors'è lui" requires that display, yet she still had luscious flexibility (if not a high E-flat) for "Sempre libera."
There was quite a lot to like in tenor Zach Borichevsky, singing the role of Violetta's lover Alfredo. His relative youth and tall, lanky frame were a plus for the role, giving Alfredo an ingenuous charm—an innocence that countered Violetta's complexity. His range, too, is remarkably clean and clear of tightness, with a timbre that seems effortlessly musical.
Once again, baritone Mark Womack, who turned out a marvelous Sharpless in last season's Madama Butterfly, opened eyes and ears in the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father. Not only is his voice warm and rich, but he clearly knows how to deliver conflicted but sympathetic characters. One could easily forgive him for convincing Violetta to leave his son. His Act II "Di Provenza il mar," in which he seeks to remind Alfredo of his family honor, was stunning.
Music director Brian Salesky made changes to some musical resources this season, and found still others to his liking. Some new personnel filled a revamped Knoxville Opera Chorus under chorusmaster Don Townsend, and it showed. In the pit, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, replete with this seasons's personnel changes, was more solid and finessed than ever.
Stickann's simple, but elegant, set of steps, levels, abstract furniture, and swags of fabric pushed the focus of scenes downstage, while Violetta's ever-present bed drifted in and out of one's visual consciousness. Some lighting design and cue execution issues notwithstanding, this was a positive scenic direction to take. City opera companies that are rapidly and visibly moving into a higher tier of performance quality—like Knoxville Opera—know full well the danger of traditional regional production standards. A dependence on rented sets of ancient wrinkled backdrops and inappropriate set pieces may momentarily impress the theatrically unsophisticated, but those practices force directors into clumsy staging and singers into being presentational rather than dramatic. Thankfully, Knoxville Opera is moving beyond all that into new territory this season.