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Pittsburgh Opera opens season with Verdi's 'La Traviata'

| Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016, 7:24 p.m.
David Bachman Photography
Violetta Valéry (Danielle Pastin) pins a white camellia flower on Alfredo Germont (Cody Austin), signifying that she belongs to him alone in Pittsburgh Opera's 'La Traviata'
David Bachman Photography
Giorgio Germont (Sebastian Catana) tells his son Alfredo (Cody Austin) to forget about Violetta in Pittsburgh Opera's 'La Traviata.'
David Bachman Photography
Alfredo Germont (Cody Austin) woos courtesan Violetta Valéry (Danielle Pastin) in the Pittsburgh Opera's 'La Traviata.'
David Bachman Photography
Alfredo Germont (Cody Austin) woos courtesan Violetta Valéry (Danielle Pastin), but his father Giorgio Germont (Sebastian Catana) disapproves in PIttsburgh Opera's 'La Traviata'

For all the genuine allure of Pittsburgh Opera's broad repertoire — from the baroque era to a world premiere this season — opening with Giuseppe Verdi always feels right.

Verdi's ability to express emotion through music deepened and became more unforgettably beautiful as he developed from the “bel canto” style of the early 19th century to new worlds of dramatic intensity he created in his later works.

Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Verdi's “La Traviata” starting Oct. 8 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

“La Traviata” is from the prime of Verdi's middle period, which also includes “Rigoletto” and “Il Trovatore.” It was first performed in 1853 and is based on “La Dame aux Camelias” (“The Lady of the Camellias”), a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas Jr.

The title role is Violetta Valery, a Parisian courtesan. After the famous prelude, the opera opens at a boisterous party in the salon of Violetta's house, during which she can barely hide signs of her fatal illness. After Alfredo Germont appeals to her with sincere love, she ends the act singing “Sempre libre,” a thrilling credo of her belief in always being free.

But in the second act, we see her joyous new life with Alfredo shattered by his father's demand that she leave Alfredo for the sake of the Germont family reputation because she has been a courtesan. In the next act, Alfredo lashes out at her in public for leaving him, not knowing his father was responsible. Finally, after she re-reads a letter from happier days with solo violin accompaniment, the lovers reconcile on her death bed.

“La Traviata” is everything an opera should be, says Danielle Pastin, the soprano who will portray Violetta. She last performed at Pittsburgh Opera in 2015 in “Cosi fan tutte,” but is more than a local favorite. Pastin made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 2011 and has “one of the most sheerly beautiful voices on the scene today,” according to Opera News.

“Violetta is an incredibly satisfying character to portray because she has such a great arc,” the soprano says. “In the second act, you see how things could be for her with Alfredo. She's experiencing love for the first time. It breaks her when Alfredo's father comes to ask her to leave Alfredo. Leaving him is probably one of the things which quickened her death. She doesn't have much of anything to live for anymore.”

The variety of the role's vocalism is part of what makes it so satisfying — from coloratura fireworks in Act I to the extraordinary death scene.

“By the time we get to that, and we go out on a high note literally in this case, we get to do those beautiful floaty things that dramatic sopranos are known for,” Pastin says. “It's interesting that (the tessitura) in Act I is quite high, Act II a little lower and Act III lower still. Verdi wrote so well for the voice. When a soprano warms up, she's ready for Act I. Your voice continues to warm up to the lower register through singing the role.”

Tenor Cody Austin feels as though he was born to perform Alfredo in terms of personality and vocal demands.

“Alfredo is very gullible and so am I,” he says. “He truly loves Violetta and does not see what's coming in the second act. He gets mad in the third act because the ones you love can hurt you the most.”

Although he has performed the role many times before, he says the insights of stage director Chas Rader-Shieber have been revelatory.

“He's bringing out things I'll be using over the years now,” says the tenor.

Christian Capocaccia will be making his Pittsburgh Opera debut conducting “La Traviata” for the first time. But he knows it very well, and not only because he's from Rome where opera is in the air. He frequently played “La Traviata” on piano as a boy for his father, who was an amateur tenor and architect. He continued studying it while he pursued a degree in violin.

“All the tunes go around in your head forever, like a song by Elton John,” he says.

Capocaccia thinks there are fast and slow conductors and that his temperament is not laid back and low energy.

“Aesthetically, I do believe, in the theater, things need to be linked one to another. Even if you stretch (the tempo), it's absolutely essential to keep the momentum of not just the music but the action as well.”

Also making his Pittsburgh Opera debut is Sebastian Catana as Alfredo's father. Originally from Romania, Catana first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in “La Boheme” in 2003. Despite the fact that most of his performances are in Europe, Catana and his family live in Bethel Park.

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

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