by Fred Baumgarten
Panopera’s presentation of La Traviata at the Academy of Music in Northampton straddled the line between professional quality and amateur production. On the strength of some good singing, sincerity, and charm, let’s call it a win.
La Traviata (roughly, “The Fallen One”), arguably Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular opera and certainly his most breezily tuneful, tells the story of a 19th-century Parisian courtesan (Violetta) wooed by an impetuous young man (Alfredo). In love, the duo retire together to a country home, where Violetta is visited by Alfredo’s father (Giorgio Germont).
Germont convinces Violetta that the stain on his family name is too great, and pressures her to sacrifice her love and leave. Violetta agrees, after securing a promise from Germont that after her death – she is in the late stages of tuberculosis – he reveal the real reason for her departure to his son.
Alfredo tracks down Violetta at a party in Paris thrown by her friend (Flora), accompanying the Barone Douphol. In a fit of jealousy, Alfredo challenges Douphol to a duel and insults Violetta, to the disapproval of all the partygoers. In the final act, Alfredo returns to Violetta once more as she nears death. The couple is reunited, Germont expresses remorse for his actions, and Violetta expires.
Panopera is in its fourth year. It is an artist-led company that depends on ads, ticket sales, and the dedication of its members for its productions. This is the first season the company will put on two shows, with the musical Sweeney Todd coming in January 2019.
At the Academy, the show got off to a rocky start, with the cello section entering a full measure early in the delicate overture. Conductor Jonathan Hirsh nearly had to bark at the players to get them back on track. Production values were scant. The costumes, a sea of scarlet and black more appropriate for Carmen than Traviata, were tacky. When the company came on stage for the opening party scene, I was transported back to my days as a Gilbert and Sullivan amateur while watching the forced and exaggerated efforts at gaiety.
Although the Academy appears to have a pit, the orchestra was placed on stage behind the action, creating a very tight space for the players. The set consisted of a bench, a chairs, some risers, and an all-purpose bed. English supertitles were projected in the middle of a screen at the back of the stage, making them difficult to see, at least to patrons in the front rows.
Fortunately, Violetta’s elegant blue dress offered some visual interest. More importantly, Kathleen Callahan-Hardman sang the role brilliantly in her Panopera debut. The Connecticut-based singer has an impressive resumé and a clear, unforced sound. What set her performance apart was her ability to convey deep emotion with her voice while still holding her musicality. That is a rare gift even among top-ranked divas.
As Alfredo, Alan Schneider, a Northampton local who works at Smith College, had excellent and consistent clarity – the pleasing tone of a true tenor’s “head voice” – but struggled at the upper end of his range and sometimes went flat. Regrettably, his acting was campy at best, as when he attempted to sing the second act’s opening aria (my favorite), De’miei bollenti spiriti / Il giovanile ardore – “The youthful ardor of my ebullient spirits,” while lounging on his back. But he did sing it well.
Steve Curylo made a serviceable Germont; his voice lacked focus and a steady tone across its range. Yet he had his moments, and the audience appreciated the effort. Among the supporting cast, Meghan Ryan as Flora and Jermaine Woodard Jr. as Baron Douphol radiated confidence in their voices. The latter would have made a superior Germont, in this writer’s opinion. Dancers from the Pioneer Valley Ballet did an outstanding job in the cramped circumstances.
Panopera may not be up to the level of a Berkshire Opera, whose Rigoletto (also Verdi) I saw a few weeks ago, but as community opera, it is a resource worth having. Charm and sincerity go a long way. Just ask an old Pirates of Penzance copper like me!
Panopera presents LA TRAVIATA. Composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Conducted by Jonathan Hirsh. Directed by Michelle Hendrick. Choreography by Barbie Diewald. Costume Design by Emily Justice Dunn. Lighting and Set Design by Alan Schneider. Cast: Kathleen Callahan-Hardman (Violetta Valéry), Alan Schneider (Alfredo Germont), Steve Curylo (Giorgio Germont), Meghan Ryan (Flora), Rachel Abrams (Annina), George Eisenhauer (Gastone de Letorières), Jermaine Woodard Jr. (Barone Douphol), Reed E. Pagliaccio (Marchese d’Obigny), Philip Hart Helzer (Dottore Grenvil), Kevin Hanley (Giuseppe). Featured Dancers: Stephanie Kellogg and Melanie Ostiguy.
Running Time: 150 minutes, three acts, two intermissions; Academy of Music, 274, Main St., Northampton, MA.