Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 29
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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Opera New Jersey Opens Fifth Season With Verdi Classic

Nancy Plum

How times have changed; if a virtual stranger walked up to you professing eternal love, you would at a minimum consider calling the authorities, if not canceling that online dating subscription. However, such is the stuff of 19th century opera, and Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was among the best of his time in providing audiences with musical drama that pulled at the public heartstrings. La Traviata, which premiered in Venice in 1853, was not quite the immediate success Verdi likely envisioned, but since that time, has become a beloved staple of the operatic repertory worldwide. Opera New Jersey, in its fifth summer season, brought a concise and appealing production of “Trav,” as it has become known in singers’ circles, to McCarter Theater’s Berlind Theatre on Friday night for the first of five performances. Conducted by Fernando Raucci (known to area audiences as the conductor of the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra), La Traviata was presented in Italian with English subtitles.

There is something to be said for keeping things on the small and contained side when running an opera company. Opera New Jersey directors Scott and Lisa Altman have wisely not chosen to make the leap to McCarter’s main stage, preferring the more intimate and familial connection between stage and audience that is found in the Berlind Theatre. As a result, with Barry Steele’s clever lighting and Patricia Hibbert’s consistent and stylistic costumes, this production looked as though it was taking place in a Faberge egg, with a rapt audience eavesdropping on every word.

“La Traviata” will be performed Thursday, July 17, Saturday, July 19 and Saturday, July 26 at McCarter Theater’s Berlind Theatre. Ticket information can be obtained by calling the Opera New Jersey box office at (609) 799-7700.

Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero is the find of Opera New Jersey thus far. Ms. Caballero’s operatic credits include performances in Italy, and the seemingly innate communication between soprano and conductor was a key element in the success of this production. Ms. Caballero’s Violetta clearly had money, judging by the gold-decorated opening scene set, and her opening notes in dialogue with her party friends gave notice that her signature arias were going to be great. Her rapport with Mr. Raucci enabled her to keep up with his very quick tempi, and her full voice easily filled the hall. Ms. Caballero’s rendition of “Sempre Libera,” the first act keynote aria, demonstrated that she was able to throw off well-focused coloratura with ease.

Ms. Caballero’s fiery Violetta was a good match for Alfredo, sung by tenor Michael Fabiano. Mr. Fabiano had a movie actor quality about his persona, singing with passion and settling well into the role by the second act. He was successful in riling Violetta up in the opening party scene, to the point that Ms. Caballero took a good long time to think before beginning the “Ah, fors’ è lui” recitative, commenting on her realization that Alfredo has piqued her interest, much the way such thoughts would take place in real life.

Although at first glance Alfredo seemed a bit old for Violetta, the triangle was complete when Alfredo’s father Germont, sung by William Andrew Stuckey, appeared on the scene. Mr. Stuckey was commanding yet subtle in his portrayal of Germont, especially when convincing Violetta to give up Alfredo. Mr. Stuckey solidly held the stage as a towering figure with unquestioning authority.

La Traviata is centered on these three characters, but there are several other minor characters that are key to the story, most notably Violetta’s servant Annina, sung with a light and clean tone by Kemper Florin; and Flora, sung with conviction by Ariya Sawadivong. A number of other small roles were sung by Opera New Jersey “Festival Artists” — singers who seem to be on their way up through the ranks of the opera world.

Conductor Raucci was clearly more than comfortable with the score, leading a small but accurate orchestra made up of the usual suspects from Philadelphia and Princeton professional rosters. The small orchestra pit created an intimate musical atmosphere, but left little room for instrumentalists to cover any mistakes. Mr. Raucci looked for much detail in nuance from the players, and impressively kept the winds and brass crisp.

Director John Hoomes allowed the performers to display a great deal of naturalism through their characters, coupled with supertitles translating the Italian with a colloquial style probably replicating how people talked to one another in those days. It was especially entertaining, in the first act, to watch Violetta swigging from a wine bottle and littering the stage with jewelry before launching into “Sempre Libera.”

Opera New Jersey has a lot on its plate this summer, but followers of the organization seem to think the company might be coming into its own with this season.

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