For years the Brevard Music Center's Janiec Opera Company has staged its productions in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium, the largest open-air venue on the Center's campus. Now the Company, directed by David Gately, has found a more intimate (and air-conditioned) space in the Scott Concert Hall at the Porter Center of Brevard College. With the season's first production, Verdi's La Traviata, we witnessed the extraordinary efforts the Center has expended to convert the concert stage into a workable theater space — and the challenges still remaining for future productions.
The transformation of the open stage was remarkable. While there was still no curtain, wings had been constructed, and with them, backstage areas. The small Brevard Festival Orchestra sat in front of the stage in the space of several rows of house seats that had been removed. The four memorable sets by scenic designer Evan F. Adamson were lavish and beautifully detailed, giving the stage the look of an established professional opera house. Unfortunately, these were totally dismantled piece by piece at each scene change by a small army of stage hands in full view of the audience (unless you left the hall during these lengthy intermissions), a rather time-consuming process that effectively undermined the beautiful illusions created by the production.
Verdi's blockbuster is all about dramatic confrontations — principally those of its heroine, who sinks under duress from disease and the societal need for respectability — and, of course, all about the singers who were absolutely first-rate. The best gain in the change of venue is that the singers perform without any sort of amplification and could be heard clearly above the orchestra, conducted by Patrick Hansen. Amanda Kingston was stunning as Violetta Valéry. Impassioned and well on top of her role's technical demands, she displayed an impressive dramatic versatility garnered from extensive stage experience. (This role will be sung on July 9 by Melinda Whittington, and on July 10, Kingston will return.) Canadian tenor Chris Oliveira in the role of her lover Alfredo Germont was likewise impressive vocally, though he seemed to struggle with issues in his highest register (allergies?). Up and coming Reginald Smith, Jr., only 22 and in the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, nearly stole the show with a mature stage presence and stupendous vocal capability well beyond his years. Credit is due to the supporting cast and chorus who gave the show such an authentically rousing Verdian aural hue.
Two more productions — Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore — are slated later this month for the same stage. Weill's The Threepenny Opera (its three performances are already sold out) and Handel's Alcina (the Company's first production of a Baroque opera) will be staged in Porter Center's black box Morrison Playhouse, a much much smaller space that, as seen already with the Weill production, may not accommodate the demand for tickets. The tradeoffs engendered with the move to these new spaces will continue to play out as the Company wrestles with the problems of staging opera where opera was never part of the original equation.