J. Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale and Chamber Orchestra reached a new artistic pinnacle last weekend in concert-setting performances of Verdi's La Traviata.
The music director's promise to "put the audience in the thick of the action, close to the singers so that music and drama envelop them" was fully realized, creating a memorable experience for the audience at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
On opera stages in Brazil, Paris and Hawaii, Green has become known as "a singer's conductor." But here, Green has conducted only Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in 1998 and Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus in 2002, and neither of them has the length or breadth of the full-scale La Traviata.
Now the world's most popular opera, it caused a stir at its 1853 debut in Venice because it was based on Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias, which told the story of contemporary courtesan Marie Duplessis, the lover of the young Dumas, as well as of Franz Liszt. She died at age 23 in 1847.
The title of La Traviata comes from the Italian verb traviare, meaning to go astray.
The proverbial prostitute with the heart of gold, Violetta is the darling of a baron and a marquis.
After love-struck Alfredo comes to her soiree, Violetta decides to give up partying in Paris and goes off to her country house with Alfredo.
Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, visits and persuades her to give up Alfredo so his sister can marry well.
Violetta sacrifices her happiness to the Germont family without Alfredo realizing why, and when they meet again in the final act, Alfredo finds Violetta terminally ill.
The success of this opera depends on the soprano who sings Violetta, and Green made a brilliant choice in Amy Cofield, whose performance was the most complete I've ever seen. (That includes productions of the opera at the Met and in Verona. I've also enjoyed a few Traviata performances at the Baltimore Opera and at least two by Annapolis Opera.) Cofield effortlessly floated notes and hit high ones while bringing nuanced feeling to each aria. Physically, she has an arresting presence, grace and beauty beyond any of the prima donnas I've seen in the role.
Superb tenor Scott Williamson brought an extra dynamic of great passion to the role of Alfredo, making his portrayal seem not the spoiled and callow youth so often presented.
Giorgio Germont was magnificently sung and subtly acted by baritone Shouvik Mondle, whose intense duet with Cofield was a high point.
Susan Fleming played Violetta's friend Flora, vocally conveying her character's compassion and sophistication.
Laurie Hays played Violetta's devoted friend Annina with the right mix of sweetness and strength.
Other cast members contributed to the extraordinary whole.
The Annapolis Chamber Orchestra played beautifully and with immense sensitivity. Chorale members formed a dream opera chorus, offering a spirited "Brindisi" and a lively song at Flora's party, as well as a Mardi Gras bacchanal that contrasted a carefree life with that of Violetta's as she lay alone in her final illness.
A half-dozen dancers from Ballet Theatre of Maryland executed a surprisingly full ballet featuring gypsies and a matador.
Director Green not only found room on the crowded stage for the ballet, but he managed within a very limited space to create scenes that told the story with minimal props, such as small tables to create a party atmosphere and later a gambling area, and a divan at Flora's party that later became Violetta's deathbed. These pieces could be moved quickly into place with minimal time wasted.
Any opera lover who has spent Saturday afternoons listening to Met broadcasts would be perfectly content with Green's staging, well equipped to imagine the revelers outside Violetta's bedroom, and the carriages leaving the garden of her country home. Of utmost importance is the music, and this "La Traviata" would rank quite high indeed.
The extended ovation that followed Saturday's performance leads me to hope that other opera productions will be part of future Annapolis Chorale seasons. I'd also like to hear a program of great operatic choruses offered by the Annapolis Chorale. As Mae West said, "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."
Next on tap for the Annapolis Chorale are A Celebration of Christmas at Maryland Hall on Dec. 7 and 8, and Handel's Messiah on Dec. 15 and 17 at St. Anne's Church.
To purchase tickets, call Maryland Hall box office at 410-280-5640.