Soprano sub lifts Lyric Opera’s lukewarm “Traviata”

Thu Feb 21, 2019 at 1:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Emily Birsan sang the role of Violetta at Wednesday’s performance of “La Traviata” at Lyric Opera.

One knew it was likely not good news when a Lyric Opera casting update showed up in the email box a couple hours before Wednesday’s performance of La Traviata.

After singing last Saturday’s opening performance of Verdi’s romantic tragedy, Albina Shagimuratova bowed out of Wednesday’s matinee due to laryngitis. A pre-performance aisle query asking Lyric’s director of media relations how long the Russian soprano might be out elicited only the response, “It’s laryngitis, Larry,” spoken with dripping condescension.

General director Anthony Freud’s curtain announcement proved more helpful, stating that Shagimuratova was, in fact, suffering from acute laryngitis. Those holding tickets for the remaining Traviata dates should not be hopeful about the soprano returning anytime soon.

The good news is that Emily Birsan, the company’s cover Violetta, did an admirable job filling in Wednesday. The not-so-good news is that this lukewarm Traviata virtually defines routine. 

The problem was not the subbing Violetta but the overall lack of fire, intensity and musical distinction in the performance. 

The opening minutes don’t always accurately predict how an opera performance will go but the bland string playing in the Prelude to Act 1 was a harbinger of the afternoon. Making his company debut, Michael Christie’s conducting largely centered on fleet tempos and bandmasterly efficiency. That was acceptable when the music was loud and fast, as in Act 1’s party scene, but too often the playing was stiff and rhythmically dogged. The conductor sloughed over subtle details of scoring and nuance where much of the greatness of Verdi’s score lies. When you find yourself noticing the unvaried bass line is “De’ miei bollenti” there is a problem somewhere.

More broadly, one has to question the company’s preference for using popular Verdi and Puccini operas as vehicles for conductor debuts. Most of these pit bows have been undistinguished and many have had a negative impact on the performances. For the ticket prices Lyric charges, it’s not asking too much to engage conductors with some experience and proven knowledge of how the Italian repertorie should go.

Birsan, a Ryan Opera Center alumna, clearly has the requisite lyric soprano voice and qualities to encompass both the coloratura and dramatic challenges of the role of Violetta. She seemed a bit cautious in the early going, taking an extra beat before high cadenzas and appearing to have a memory slip at the end of “Un di felice.” She also could have enunciated her words more clearly at times and better projected the spoken letter reading, which was nearly inaudible.

But considering the inevitable pressure and lack of stage rehearsal, Birsan turned in an impressive performance as the doomed courtesan, one that will likely become even more assured should she be required to sing additional dates over the rest of the run.

The soprano was clear and accurate in the high-flying coloratura of Act I and conveyed Violetta’s lusty love of life in the brilliance of “Sempre libera” (passing on the unwritten high E flat). With her lovely, graceful stage presence, Birsan was dramatically effective as well. She conveyed Violetta’s surprise at her sudden love for Alfredo, as well as her anguish at being forced to abandon him by his socially respectable father. Birsan was at her finest in the closing scene, with a  moving and luminous “Addio del passato,” tender in the duet with her beloved, and making Violetta’s final moments genuinely affecting.  

Giorgio Berrugi made a largely impressive Lyric debut as Alfredo. His tenor lies rather low for the role and top notes were less than clarion. Yet the Italian singer—who began his career as a clarinetist— has great Mediterranean warmth of timbre, with ample power and weight. He delivered a vibrant Brindisi, a terrific “De’ miei bollenti” and blended gracefully with Birsan in their closing duet. Dramatically, Beruggi showed himself a compelling actor, though the awkward staging didn’t make the best use of his dramatic qualities.

Željko Lučić doesn’t possess the aristocratic bearing nor the Italianate tone one would ideally like in a Germont. Still, the veteran Serbian singer was a worthy semi-villain as Alfredo’s father, wielding his burly Slavic baritone skillfully and contributing an expressive “Il Provenza.”

The stark minimalism of Riccardo Hernandez’s unit set is effective enough with its curved walls and bare furniture, though this kind of grim, stripped-down modernity is more of a cliche now than when this show debuted in 2012. Flora’s party offers some welcome color and contrast; the large bull skeleton puppets are an amusing and diverting visual, the gender-bending dancers not so much, looking like they waltzed in from Cats and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Apart from dispensing, mercifully, with the diaphanous angel wings on Violetta’s white gown, there was little gain in the production from its debut seven years ago. Arin Arbus’s direction veered from park-and-bark blocking to unwonted Hollywood theatrics that ill fit Verdi’s dramaturgy. Can we please jettison the trend of having characters slap each other at emotional high peaks? (Germont and the Baron both give Alfredo a shot in successive scenes.) It’s the ultimate lazy directorial conceit to have upper-class 19th-century characters hitting each other like they’re in a Die Hard movie.

The big-voiced Baron of Ricardo Joe Rivera, a Ryan Opera Center first-year member, stood out from a humdrum, under-directed supporting cast. The Lyric Opera Chorus provided their usual ensemble excellence.

La Traviata runs through March 22. lyricopera.org.

Posted in Performances


One Response to “Soprano sub lifts Lyric Opera’s lukewarm “Traviata””

  1. Posted Feb 22, 2019 at 10:27 pm by john coggeshall

    wonderfully informative and thoughtful review. thank you!

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