Lyric Opera beautifies Chicago with Verdi's La traviata

  • Lyric Opera is proud to welcome acclaimed American music director and conductor Michael Christie, who makes his Lyric Opera of Chicago main stage debut leading all ten performances of La Traviata this season. Courtesy of James Daniel

    Lyric Opera is proud to welcome acclaimed American music director and conductor Michael Christie, who makes his Lyric Opera of Chicago main stage debut leading all ten performances of La Traviata this season. Courtesy of James Daniel

 
Natalia Dagenhart
Updated 2/28/2019 1:40 PM

"He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her," said Jesus about the woman who was caught in adultery, and after these words no one condemned her. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." In reality things don't always work this way, nor are they this way in the plots that become the basis for theatrical and operatic works. In Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata, the main heroine is criticized for her courtesan past, and even when she devotes her life to the man whom she loves, is asked to leave him. She finally dies from illness and moral suffering. This season, Lyric Opera of Chicago is delighted to beautify Chicago with this immortal masterpiece with seven more performances left. They will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 1; 7 p.m. on Monday, March 4; 2 p.m. on Thursday, March 7; 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 10; 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13; 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 16; and 7 p.m. on Friday, March 22.

"The attraction of the courtesan Violetta Valéry to the impetuous young Alfredo Germont, previously illuminated in Dumas's La Dame aux camélias, inspired Verdi to create what is by some distance the most romantic of his operas," wrote Lyric's General Director, President and CEO in Lyric Notes. "At its heart is the beautiful, warmhearted, nobly self-sacrificing heroine, who reveals her soul in music of heartstopping beauty and sensitivity."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

This opera was first performed at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on March 6, 1853. It has been one of the most frequently performed operas in the world since Verdi's times and up to our days. Libretto in Italian was written by Francesco Maria Piave, and Verdi embraced it with memorable and sparkling melodies, intimate scale, brilliant instrumentation, and wonderful harmonies. Many of the arias from La Traviata are so popular that they are frequently performed in concerts separately from the opera itself.

La Traviata (The fallen woman) was first performed by Lyric Opera of Chicago on November 8, 1954. The current version of La Traviata successfully premiered at Lyric during its 2013-2014 season. It is a coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Canadian Opera Company. La Traviata is sung in Italian with projected English titles by Francis Rizzo. This quintessential Italian opera with gorgeous melodies, outstanding arias and amazing choral scenes requires a strong directorship, and Lyric Opera of Chicago is proud to work with acclaimed theatrical and operatic director Arin Arbus.

The performance that took place on Sunday, February 24, featured acclaimed American soprano Emily Birsan in the role of Violetta Valéry. Being a Ryan Opera Center alumna, the singer recently has risen to prominence and has performed at numerous prestigious venues in the United States and in the world. Birsan replaced world-renowned Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, who was suffering that day from laryngitis.

The role of Violetta is very challenging as it requires strong vocal skills, extremely flexible singing technique and outstanding artistic presentation, and Birsan's talent shines in this role. Birsan finds the best way to deliver the features of Violetta's personality that develops vocally throughout the opera. La Traviata is popular for presenting some of the most revered music in the entire soprano repertoire, and the audience deeply appreciated beautiful soprano arias presented by Birsan and greeted them with delight. One of the arias, Sempre libera, is especially well known as a beautiful and extremely challenging and demanding soprano aria. Birsan performed it with extreme brilliance and mastership, just as all other arias and duets.

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The role of Alfredo is presented by internationally renowned Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi, whose participation in this production became his Lyric debut. Chicago audiences already fell in love with Berrugi and his breathtaking voice. Alfredo's aria De' miei bollenti spiriti in Act II with its beautiful and sensitive melody touched everyone's heart as Berrugi's tenor sounded with great passion and sincerity, as it did during the whole performance.

Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's stern father, is presented by Serbian bass-baritone Željko Lučić. Being one of today's leading proponents of dramatic Italian repertoire internationally, Lučić impresses the audiences from all over the world with his rich voice and outstanding vocal technique. In the aria "Di Provenza il mar," Lučić touched the entire audience with the depth and sincerity of his voice.

For American mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams the role of Violetta's friend Flora became her Lyric debut. Lyric's La Traviata also features numerous rising young singers. Many members of this year's Ryan Opera Center perform supporting roles. Contralto Lauren Decker portrays Violetta's maid Annina, tenor Mario Rojas plays Gastone, baritone Christopher Kenney is the Marquis, baritone Ricardo José Rivera plays Baron Douphol, bass-baritone David Weigel sings Dr. Grenvil, and tenor Eric Ferring is Giuseppe.

La Traviata is popular for its outstanding duets and ensembles, such as the tender love duet of Violetta and Alfredo "Un dì felice" and the emotional duet of Violetta and Germont "Dite alla giovine." The chorus also plays an important role in this stunning opera adding to it even more splendor and elegance. A great example of it is everybody's favorite "drinking song," or "Libiamo, ne' lieti calici," which is sung by Violetta and Alfredo, who are later joined by the chorus. One of the most memorable choral scenes is "Noi siamo zingarelle" sung by Gypsies and Picadors, where the Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus, directed by Michael Black, demonstrates its vocal beauty and gorgeousness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The orchestra plays an essential role in this opera, and Lyric Opera is proud to welcome acclaimed American music director and conductor Michael Christie, who makes his Lyric Opera of Chicago main stage debut leading all ten performances of La Traviata this season. Maestro Christie has already impressed Chicago audiences with his delicate and filigreed conducting and extremely sensitive presentation of La Traviata's intimate score. Under Maestro Christie's baton, the Lyric Opera Orchestra demonstrates its full brilliance and mastership. It was my honor to conduct an online interview with Maestro Christie and I am happy to share it with you.

Q. How does your previous experience in leading this masterpiece help you in conducting La Traviata at Lyric and how does it differ?

A. I've had several Traviata experiences over the years and each time brings me to what I hope is a more human and sincere approach. It's amazing how different the piece becomes with different casts! No matter what your previous experiences are, the dynamic between the vocalists takes things in directions you may or may not expect. Working with different musical and production talent is one of the most interesting aspects of my job!

Q. Previously at Lyric, you conducted "Rising Stars in Concert" in 2015 and 2016, featuring ensemble members of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center in performance with the Lyric Opera Orchestra. What are your memories of working with the best emerging artists represented by this Center and with the Lyric Opera Orchestra? Could you call that experience a preparation for your debut at Lyric as an opera conductor?

A. I had two joyful experiences working with the Ryan Center artists and the amazing Lyric Opera Orchestra. One of the ways those experiences helped prepare me was knowing the physical performance space -- the size of the pit, the distance from the podium to the stage and how the balance works between vocalists and orchestra were enormously helpful to have experienced in advance.

Q. You are considered to be an equally accomplished opera and orchestral conductor. What comes first -- to conduct classical music concerts, which frequently consist of multiple compositions, or opera productions, where you lead an orchestra in performing one solid operatic work?

A. They are unique experiences for sure but I love how intimate knowledge of one art form informs the other. Opera gives me courage to take musical and dramatic risks with symphonic music. Conversely, the interaction with the orchestra and audience is different in a symphonic context and I try to imagine how we can maximize the audience experience for both types of presentations.

Q. What do you like about Verdi's La Traviata -- its plot, beautiful melodies, or maybe the orchestration?

A. I love that Verdi is able to translate ubiquitous human emotions into music with such power that it can be portrayed innumerable ways. He delivers so much emotional impact in the simplest ways, whether by melody or harmonic shift.

"Love … is the pulse of the universe," sings Alfredo while declaring his love to Violetta. Lyric Opera's La Traviata is the pulse of Chicago, the city that forgives this fallen woman and loves her with all its heart.

For more information and to order tickets, visit https://www.lyricopera.org/concertstickets/calendar/2018-2019/la-traviata-opera-tickets or call 312-827-5600. Tickets start at $37.

Natalia Dagenhart

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