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"Verdi was a rock star," said Suzanne Rorick, executive director of the Toledo Opera before the curtain rose on La Traviata, first production of the 53rd season.
That's no exaggeration: the 19th century Italian composer inspired riots in Milan with the premieres of several operas, so popular was his work with his countrymen.
At student night on Wednesday the reception by a large, very young crowd in the Valentine Theatre was rock-star enthusiastic. The applause clearly celebrated both the rich assemblage of tender melodies that propel the tragic tale of Violetta Valery straight to the heart, and the cast of this production who brought Verdi's music and Francesco Maria Piave's libretto alive with impressive vocal and dramatic performances.
In soprano Sarah Jane McMahon the company has found an actress with a brilliant, even, and infinitely flexible voice and a singer who knows how to fully inhabit a part. Her Violetta was equal parts vamp and saint, all party-hearty in one scene, self-sacrificing lover in the next. Even her extended death scene was graceful and believable, musically convincing.
Her romantic partner, Alfredo, performed by last minute stand-in Jonathan Boyd, is ardent, impulsive, and sensitive -- and that's just his acting. His tenor sound is rich and rounded with warm color to enhance a most wonderful nuanced performance. (Shawn Mathey, the original cast member, had to cancel last weekend. This makes Boyd's debut performance even more impressive.)
Toledo has seen Scott Bearden in several lively or even comedic roles. This time, Bearden's rich and supple baritone became the voice of painful family directive. In the very moving second act, his long and varied solos and duets with McMahon are a high point of the entire evening.
This trio of principals is surrounded by a wealth of strong and distinctive supporting singers such as Rebecca O-G Eaddy (Annina), Adam Cavagnaro (Marquis d'Obigny), Edward Hanlon (Dr. Grenvil), and James Benjamin Rodgers (Gaston, Alfredo's friend). Bass Sean Cooper, as the Baron, was convincingly powerful, physically and vocally, and Cynthian Brundage conjured a vivid hostess, Flora Bervoix.
Wisely prepared by Kevin Bylsma, the Toledo Opera Chorus was an essential and energizing element in elaborate party scenes in Act I and Act II, Scene 2. Their sound was mellow and balanced yet very clear with excellent diction.
Director Fenlon Lamb's staging made the most of all this talent against a simplified yet evocative set.
Under James Meena's direction, the Toledo Symphony has never sounded better in the Valentine pit. Meena asked for and received a transparent layered effect that never outdid the singers yet provided the essential musical underpinnings.
Rock on, Verdi! Rock on, Toledo Opera!
Toledo Opera presents La Traviata at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets are $25-$75 at 419-255-7464 or toledoopera.org.
Contact Sally Vallongo at firstname.lastname@example.org.