ORLANDO — Is opera the greatest, most stylized form of TV-style soaps imaginable, where the suffering of the innocent and virtuous is majestically and vividly brought to life on stage? Or is it the ultimate way to portray great tragedy on stage?
Watching the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra perform its soaring version of “La Traviata,” with an absolutely magnificent performance by Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta, you tend to forget how easily the story falls, in true soap opera fashion, from the sheer joys of true love being discovered to those shattering scenes of misery, heartbreak, torment and death. Whew!
This is a genuine three-hanky show, grandly performed by a talented cast. Yes, it all feels like a big old soap opera, but you’ll be amazed how little you care, or how quickly you get caught up in the lives of courtesan Violetta and her young suitor, Alfredo, as their great passion tumbles into tragedy. You’ll easily want to be swept away with the story, despite knowing where it’s headed.
“La Traviata,” which was performed on Friday at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in downtown Orlando, is the classic opera by Guiseppe Verdi, and opens with a lighthearted party being thrown by Violetta, a courtesan to the rich men of Paris. She’s known for giving flamboyant parties, including one that attracts Alfredo, who has fallen in love with her.
At first, Violetta resists his advances. She’s used to living a carefree life of parties and the compamy of others – as Violetta sings at one point, “Always free, I looks only for pleasure.”
Eventually, Violetta changes her mind, and in scene 2, she has moved Alfredo into her country home, and given up those lavish city parties for — you got it, true love. Sigh.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true opera without a whole series of monkey wrenches being thrown into the mix, starting with Alfredo learning from Violetta’s maid, Annina, that she’s been forced to sell Violetta’s possessions to support their current lifestyle.
Then Alfredo’s father shows up, to talk Violetta into ending their relationship for the sake of his family. And as if that wasn’t enough, Violetta has tuberculosis.
Cue to audience: tragedy time.
There may be few scenes in the history of overwhelming stage performances than watching a weak and sickly Violetta, wearing a white gown and lying in her bed, knowing the end is near, and singing with amazing grace and passion in her final moments. Such is the stuff of truly powerful theater, no matter how much modern day television and movies have made these kinds of plots seem coy, stale and manipulative. Opera always knew how to do it the best.
The Orlando Philharnonic version, sung in Italian with subtitles broadcast on a screen above the stage (and sometimes ill-timed, so that sentences show up before the actors start singing, or long after they have been crooning for several minutes) is set in Paris in the late 1920s – a long way from 1700, as in the original 1850s production.
Christopher Wilkins, the conductor, notes in the program book that this was done for a good reason, since the booming era of the 1920s masked the hardship and torments soon to follow, from the Great Depression to World War II.
Wilkins called the late 1920s “a time of exuberance, decadence, and enormous social change following World War I. In Paris, the greatest artists of Europe gathered: the middle class gained access to ever-greater luxuries; and, crucial to our story, women enjoyted unprecedented freedoms.”
So that era came to symbolize Violetta’s relationship with Alfredo: short-lived, doomed to end tragically.
Such is the stuff of truly great opera.
Caballero and Brian Jagde, as Alfredo, are so good that you can’t help but root for them to recapture their love and, just this once, avoid the tragedy that awaits the endings of all great operas. Alas, it is not to be, but they sure are emotionally gripping to watch along the way.
Moments before the play opened, David Shillhammer, the executive director of the Orlando Philharmonic, told the audience to expect it all: vibrant performers, lavish costumes, and, of course, the skill that his musicians bring to the score.
“We take the orchestra out of the pit and put them in their rightful place,” he said, as the musicians sat directly behind the set, with Wilkins in front of them.
It’s a superb show, and will be performed a second time on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Bob Carr – an appropriate Mother’s Day gift.
Now that’s entertainment.
Call 407-770-0071 for tickets.
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