ORLANDO – For Christopher Wilkins, Sunday’s Mother’s Day matinee performance of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s production of the classic opera “La Traviata” marked a significant moment in his role as their conductor.
About an hour before the show started, Wilkins joined Frank McClain, the stage director, in the auditorium of the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre for a talk back session with the audience. Conducting such a magnificent opera has been challenging and rewarding, Wilkins said, and it helps to work with such gifted collaborators as McClain.
“Frank always finds a way to involve me in all the actions,” Wilkins said. “Then, of course, there’s our incredible chorus, which has the same DNA as the Orlando Opera Chorus.”
After all, the chorus for “La Traviata,” the opera by composer Giuseppe Verdi, included 10 sopranos, nine mezzo singers, eight tenors and 11 baritones – not to mention the musicians themselves.
“It’s quite a three-ring circus that we have here today,” Wilkins said.
The production was significant in another way. As Wilkins noted, it marked his farewell gift to music lovers in Orlando.
“This is my last production here,” he said. “It’s been a great ride and wonderful eight years for me.”
Wilkins has been the music director of the Orlando Philharmonic since the fall of 2006, but now is moving on.
“La Traviata” was performed on Friday and Sunday, and David Shillhammer, the executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, noted that the production was a great way to showcase their unique talents.
“Mounting a production of this magnitude takes a significant crew,” he said.
Speaking to the audience, McClain described the story of “La Traviata” in rather simple terms.
“Party girl falls in love with a naïve, wonderful guy whose father disapproves,” he said. “The romance is brief. She has a heart of gold, but we know she is ill. She has this zest for life.”
“La Traviata” tells the story of Violetta Valery, who lives in Paris and is known for throwing lavish parties. A young suitor, Alfredo Germont, attends one of them and admits that he has secretly loved Violetta for a while. At first she attempts to dissuade him from pursuing that love, but eventually gives in to her feelings for him, and they move to her home in the country.
But Violetta is forced to send her maid back to Paris to sell off all her possessions to help maintain their new lifestyle, and then Alfredo’s father shows up at her door, announcing that she must leave him for the good of the family. Even worse, she is dying of tuberculosis.
Wilkins noted that the opera was based on a novel by Alexander Dumas, “And it was quite scandalous in its day,” as well as being based on a true story.
What makes it work so beautifully, McClain, is the lead, Violetta.
“It’s really a magnificent character, and we have an amazing soprano, Elizabeth Caballero, singing it,” he said. “Her acting is just brilliant.”
McClain had similar praise for Brian Jagde, who plays Alfredo.
“He’s a magnificent singer and also a magnificent actor in what he brings to her,” McClain said. “I love that the play is structured so that when he is with her, she is healthy.”
For this production, McClain said, he opted to set the story in Paris in the 1920s, although the book was written in the 1850s.
“Paris in the 1920s was truly spectacular,” he said. “It was between two world wars.”
By changing the setting to a time when people were finding success and great affluence and women were discovering and taking advantage of more freedoms, “It makes it very eternal,” McClain said. “I’ve seen a contemporary version of it that I liked very much, but I didn’t want to do that.”
Best of all, he said, has been the chance to work with Wilkins.
“Christopher has been such a magnificent partner in all this,” he said.
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