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Review: Pittsburgh Opera delivers strong 'La Traviata'

| Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, 7:21 p.m.

The highly contrasted emotional worlds of “La Traviata” hit with real force in Pittsburgh Opera's new production, which opened on Oct. 8 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Giuseppe Verdi's popular opera is filled with great melody, shaped with moment to moment dramatic personality perfectly serving a powerful dramatic arc.

The opera is based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.'s play “La dame aux Camelias” about the Parisian courtesan Violetta Valery. The famous prelude is a portrait of her, starting with her frailty due to the illness that will end her life. We see her at the peak of her lifestyle in Act I, hosting a big party, after which she sings a credo of sorts for a life free to seek the pleasures that lift her spirit.

She's even happier at the start of Act II, having given up that life to live in the country with her lover, Alfredo Germont. His father visits Violetta and is surprised to find a courtesan with a noble heart, but persuades her to give up Alfredo for the sake of the Germont family because of her reputation. Her attempt to return to her old life fails in the first part of the Act III, after which she reconciles with Alfredo and becomes hopeful only to die a moment later.

The staging by Chas Rader-Shieber is filled with insightful nuances of acting, such as the ways Alfredo is initially hesitant about approaching Violetta, the woman he's loved from afar. Rader-Shieber's boldest statement is the contrast he creates between the two party scenes. The exuberant party at the start of the opera is elegant in the way aristocracy liked to think of itself — in formal attire and with abundant social graces. The director presents the Act III party as a semi-clad orgy, Felliiniesque in its indictment of a dissolute society.

Both romantic leads, though not the chorus, were underpowered at the start of the opera but grew stronger as the story unfolded. Soprano Danielle Pastin did command the stage as Violetta through a portrayal filled with wonderful details of acting and the sheer beauty of her voice. She was already stronger vocally in her solo scene at the end of Act I than she was at the party. She didn't merely toss off the coloratura of “Sempre libera,” she sang it with fierce determination.

Cody Austin, a big handsome tenor making his Pittsburgh Opera debut, doesn't have a large voice but used it with considerable artistry and rose impressively to the challenges of the final scene. In this production he's carrying Violetta in his arms when she dies.

Baritone Sebastian Catana as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, was the most impressive of the three leading roles. Making his company debut, he showed he's a genuine artist whose voice has both depth and power.

Among supporting roles the strongest were Leah de Gruyl as Flora Bervoix, Brian Vu as Baron Douphol (Alfredo's rival for Violetta), Matthew Scollin as Doctor Grenvil, Claudia Rosenthal as Annina, and J. Patrick McGill as the messenger.

Pittsburgh Opera Chorus was superb as usual, singing with gratifying definition and spirit.

Conductor Christian Capocaccia brought welcome energy and attention to detail conducting “La Traviata” for the first time. He had plenty of ideas of his own but also showed flexibility, particularly in slower pacing for Pastin.

Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra performed mostly at a high level, although the cello tune in the Act I Prelude needed much more focus.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “La Traviata” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14, and 2 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $12 to $159.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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