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When Bob Galbraith started the Opera Company of North Carolina (OCNC) in 1996 we were dubious, wondering whether this would be one more mediocre semi-professional undertaking for the provinces. But Galbraith, with international singing experience under his belt and an impresario's personality, knew what it takes to stage a first-rate production: Hire superior singers with ample experience for the lead roles, a good orchestra and conductor, beg, borrow or steal interesting stage sets, use some imaginative tweaking of the plot, and the results can be first-rate, as attested to in past years by his The Magic Flute, Madama Butterfly and Carmen .
This weekend he scored again with Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata , just behind La Bohème in the operatic potboiler category. For the leading role of the consumptive courtesan Violetta Valery, soprano Jennifer Casey Cabot captivated the audience with a voice, acting ability and looks that were totally convincing as she descended from flighty hostess to lover, maligned woman and dying TB patient in turn. She has a clear and carrying voice, with excellent intonation, good diction and little vibrato.
Tenor Gran Wilson, as her lover Alfredo Germont, was a good match, although the volume of his voice was occasionally no match for Cabot. As befits the role, he was persistently passionate but he added to it a convincing air of the spoiled and not overly bright child in his acting and appearance. He was best in the love scenes and in his contrition during the death scene, while his anger during the confrontation with Violetta and with his adversary in love, Baron Douphol, was less convincing.
As Georgio Germont, Alfredo's father, Robert Gardner displayed a resonant wide-ranging baritone, but his performance was marred by his unchanging facial expression reminiscent of a surly teenager sitting across you at the breakfast table. The expression never changed, whether he was haughty and pleading in the garden scene, or sorrowing and contrite at Violetta's death.
Galbraith assembled some of the best of the area's musicians for a sizable and excellent orchestra. Unfortunately the pit at Memorial is too small and the three basses had to sit at stage level on the left. As a result their tone was very pronounced and definitely did not blend with the rest of the orchestra. Conductor Daniel Beckwith, with wide-ranging experience in opera conducting, brought out the drama in the music and was sensitive to the orchestral balance with the singers.
The sets for this production were original in several senses: The stage was sharply raked and turned diagonally so that the downstage area came to a sharp point cantilevered over the orchestra pit. This overall design made some of the action more intimate, especially in the final scene in Violetta's bedchamber, where the reconciliation of the lovers on a chaise longue set at the point of the cantilever isolated them in their own private world from the rest of the ensemble. Stage director Grethe Barrette Holby also emphasized Violetta's frailty from the start by showing her in mime during the opening prelude recovering from her penultimate illness examined by Dr. Grenvil (Rory Bain). Her illness thereby cast a pall over the entire opera, difficult to forget even at her recovery party in Act. I.
La Traviata is not as easy to stage as it might appear. Two scenes involve crowds of milling chorus members who have to spill on and off the stage without a traffic jam. Most directors choose to enlist the corps de ballet to handle the gypsy dance Act II, 2, but in this performance Flora's soirée was, as the Brits say, fancy dress. Her guests came in the kind of costume you'd find in the remnant room of a bridal salon and were obliged to prance around like gypsies and bullfighters. In the midst of all this pseudo-Spanish soiree, well-known flamenco dancer Carlota Santana was hampered and crowded by too many people who didn't know what to do with their feet. The faux-matadors ran around trying to spear a piñata-a Mexican, not Spanish, custom-looking very silly indeed.
But these are cavils; maybe the point was to make these useless French aristocrats look as foolish as they were. And despite the absence of program notes, all in all, Galbraith treated the Triangle grand opera buffs to a fine show managing to emerge as the survivor in the local cut-throat opera company war.
If you missed Friday's performance, there is another one on Sunday, April 7, at 2 pm. Make it if at all possible. You won't regret it.