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Vienna State Opera stages exquisite 'La Traviata'

| Wednesday, April 9, 2003

VIENNA -- For all the magnificence of instrumental concerts here and the superlative quality of the Musikverein, where the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is performing this week, the center of musical life is the Vienna State Opera.

Tuesday night's performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" demonstrated the broadly based strengths that make the Vienna State Opera unsurpassed in the world. The quality of singing, staging and orchestral playing of Verdi's popular masterpiece was almost completely satisfying, comparable to the best of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City or La Scala in Milan.

The Vienna State Opera's tradition reaches back long before World War I, when it was the Hofoper during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburg aristocracy. The opulent decor of the building was a conscious expression of imperial pride.

"La Traviata" is a setting of Alexandre Dumas' "La dame aux camellias," which exemplifies 19th-century culture's treatment of its heroines. Violetta Valery is a courtesan who falls in love with young aristocrat Alfredo Germont. She enjoys a few months of happiness with him, then leaves him when his father, Giorgio, convinces her she will ruin the family name. She is piggishly denounced by her former lover at a party and dies of consumption.

Young soprano Anna Netrebko was the stunning protagonist. She sang with wonderfully pure yet rich tone and accurate pitch. Her acting was similarly distinguished. Her characterization was flexible, with natural transitions within situations -- from falling in love, responding to the father's reproach and winning him over, fear at encountering Alfredo at a party and, above all, in the final act when she is dying from tuberculosis.

The only reservation was textural, because last night's omission of her cabaletta that ends Act I left the audience without the fullest demonstration of the vibrancy of her joy in life as an independent woman. Yet Netrebko's coloratura was clearly world-class in other passages, and her high C's rang brilliantly in the hall.

Also superb was Michael Schade as Alfredo. He was naive to the right degree in the first act and happy before having his heart broken in the second act. And lighting perfectly caught the brutality of the anger on his face at the party, where his denunciation of Violetta earns his own father's sharp reproach.

Dalibor Jenis was excellent as Giorgio, both vocally and in showing the respect he learns for Violeta at the country home she briefly shares with his son.

Supporting roles were strongly performed, while the small corps de ballet at the party was equally admirable in its female and male dancers.

The production by Otto Schenk, whose work has often been seen at the Metropolitan, used the large stage extremely well. The final act was set in a rather large space for a poor dying woman, but its spare furnishings at least showed the emptiness that had become Violetta's life.

The conductor was Marco Armiliato, who was admirable in many if not all ways. He conducted with assurance from memory, reliable in his technical responsibilities such as cuing and cutoffs, and mainly sensitive in making Verdi's music come to life.

But some of his tempi were frustrating in the same way as the "Aida" he led at the Metropolitan Opera in November, when Pittsburgher Marianne Cornetti made her major role debut at America's finest opera house. In Act I, he let the pacing in lyrical passages droop to virtual inertia. But he is young enough to make such mistakes without making further growth unlikely.

Singers and conductors come and go, but an opera company's pit orchestra is one of its most important attributes. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra numbers about 140 musicians. In fact, its concertizing form, the Vienna Philharmonic, has been on an Asian tour, but the musicians who stayed home and played in the pit last night pit performed at the highest level.

Many of "La Traviata's" most touching moments are given to the strings, and not only the famous preludes to the first and last acts. The concertmaster's solo while the dying Violetta reads a letter from happier times -- one of the opera's most poignant moments -- was exquisitely shaped. And the brilliance of the ballet music at the start of the party was thrilling.

The Vienna State Opera's "La Traviata" demonstrated both the artistic refinement and relevance to life that makes opera the most popular form of classical music.

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