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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Madison Opera's La Traviata is sterling, heart-wrenching
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Giuseppe Varano and Elizabeth Caballero in Madison Opera's 'La Traviata.'
Giuseppe Varano and Elizabeth Caballero in Madison Opera's 'La Traviata.'
Credit:James Gill

Verdi's La Traviata is one of those operas that have become victims of overexposure. But a really fine performance can remind one that it is indeed a beautiful and moving musical drama. And such a performance Madison Opera gives us with the season's final production, which debuted Friday in Overture Hall.

The secret of any successful Traviata is a strong portrayal of the heroine, the demimondaine Violetta. Verdi had his libretto based upon a quasi-autobiographical novel by Dumas the Younger, but very much had in mind also the harsh treatment given the "fallen" singer whom he rescued and took as his own wife. The opera is both melodrama and social criticism, and Violetta is victim and teacher. Moreover, Verdi cast the role in a series of solo numbers that test both the vocal and dramatic qualities of any soprano who undertakes it.

Fortunately, this Madison Opera production has a truly wonderful Violetta in Elizabeth Caballero, a Cuban-American soprano who has appeared previously in an Opera in the Park show but not in a full role here until now. With a lovely voice, she has a compelling sense of drama. As she puts the role through its paces, she creates a Violetta of passion and vulnerability, able to move from a conflicted sense of herself, through cruel sacrifices, to profound commitments. Even before her death scene, this Violetta is really heart-wrenching.

The weak element in the cast, unfortunately, is Giuseppe Varano as Violetta's lover, the shallow Alfredo. In his Madison debut, he at least suggests a brash young man, but his singing is coarse and without nuance, in the crouch-and-bellow tradition of provincial Italian tenors.

Fortunately, Caballero has a more proper foil in Donnie Ray Albert, another veteran of Opera in the Park but new to a full role here, as Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont. Though his voice is not powerful, it is used with dramatic artifice to bypass stereotypes, suggesting a good-hearted man whose understanding of life is deepened by the damage he does.

The many other roles are handled ably, mostly by familiar locals. Allisanne Apple makes a real personality out of the musically small part of Annina, Violetta's maid. And, transformed by moustache and wig into a sardonic-looking Mark Twain, Paul Rowe is an aptly malevolent Baron Duphol, Violetta's would-be "owner."

The chorus sings strongly, and the party scene in Act II is enlivened by vivid realizations made by Tania Tandias of its two dance episodes. Stage director Garnett Bruce, in his own Madison debut, brings great imagination and theatrical coherence to his staging. Conductor John DeMain provides characteristically strong and productive musical direction. And a tremendous visual asset are the sumptuous sets and lavish costumes designed by Desmond Heeley.

A traditional production in the best sense, then, and a sterling legacy left by Alan Naplan to inspire company's new general director, Kathryn Smith. The remaining performance is Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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