Encore Michigan

Modern take on La Traviata in the Big Easy a risk worth taking

Review June 12, 2015 David Kiley

Article:9825; Posted: June 12, 2015 at 3:00 p.m.

Opera is full of hardcore traditionalists who do not want to see the classics by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini modernized and otherwise updated with laptops, and talk of cellphones, texting, instant messaging and the like. But Arbor Opera Theatre largely succeeds with a modern, English-language production of La Traviata that should be seen for its originality, some excellent vocal performances and an overall production that should make “buy local” proponents proud to buy a ticket.

Buying local? Well, yes. AOT founder and artistic director Shawn McDonald spent the last year adapting Franceso Maria Piave’s original Italian libretto into English, while adhering closely to the Giuseppi Verdi music. McDonald’s nervy labor of love has set this La Traviata in modern times in New Orleans where Violetta is a troubled bi-polar manic depressive, and Fat Tuesday is approaching on the calendar.

McDonald’s adaptation, done in concert with National Network of Depression Centers, could have gone horribly wrong—done in English and with “a message.” But it doesn’t jump the rails at all. Is it perfect? No. But it is exciting to see a fresh take on a classic opera, and have it stay remarkably grounded with the original work.

In Act One, Violetta (played by soprano Kacey Cardin in the opening performance), a visual artist, has just returned home from a hospitalization resulting from cutting herself. Violetta is torn between her boyfriend, Julian (played by Peter Crist), and Augustin (played by Oakland University assistant professor of music Drake Dantzler), the son of a Senator who falls for Violetta immediately. She is coping with her own feelings and disease with a volatile mix of pills and alcohol. Augustin is not keen on the drugs. His father, the Senator (played by Evan Brummel), is even less so, telling both Violetta and Augustin he does not support the relationship in part because of Violetta’s checkered past, but also because Augustin’s mother suffered from being bi-polar and committed suicide.

Augustin gets more and more disgusted with Violetta’s partying and feelings for the hunky Julian, and becomes quite ugly in his behavior toward her. There is some resolution and hallucination in the final act as Violetta imagines how she would like all these people to behave toward her—supporting and loving. But, as we know, in the world of mental illness and addiction, life and perceptions, reality and imagination can play hell on individuals and families.

The leads are double cast, and La Traviata is playing at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre just this weekend. Ms. Cardin’s soprano vocals evoked just the right mix of moods and emotions that beset someone afflicted with her illness. And she remained strong throughout the four short acts. Her experience in both opera and musical theater shows in her Violetta as her acting is quite strong on top of her vocals, which range from soaring to poignant. Shannon Love, whose credits are operatic, plays Violetta on Friday and Sunday,

Drake Dantzler’s Augustin was a bit uneven. In Acts One and Two, his tenor vocals were marvelous, bright and evocative. But as the opera went into the second half, he seemed to lose some vocal steam, and not owing to the frustrations and pain felt by his character. Kevin Newell will play the role on Friday and Sunday. Evan Brummel’s Senator Germont is a delight. The veteran opera actor delivers his baritone with richness and resonance, and his acting is well above average. Dan Ewart will play the role Friday and Sunday.

Strong ensemble singing and acting is turned in by Elizabeth Mitchell as Charlotte and Angela Hench as Amelia, as well as Lonnie Reed (a recent masters grad of vocal performance at University of Michigan) as Christophe. Ms. Mitchell, a veteran of Michigan Opera Theatre, lights up the stage in Act Three with a solo and a fabulous diva turn in a dress fit for Mardi-Gras. Ms. Hench’s Amelia is Violetta’s party-girl friend and plays that role just right.

One of AOTs perennial strength’s is the orchestra led by conductor Warren Puffer Jones, who certainly does not disappoint on the Verdi score. The orchestra is very tight, indeed, and supports the professional vocals exceptionally well. A strong choral performance is led by director Matthew Abernathy.

Amanda’s Sullivan’s set design is lovely: a two-level set of Violetta’s loft. The colors and furnishings are spot-on, with not a shabby piece anywhere to be seen. The use of scrim to separate Violetta in her hallucinations from the cast, who are in her head, is done very effectively. Sometimes the simple solutions are best. Dance and choreography for the Fat Tuesday scene is done by Movement Artists Guild.

While performances are quite strong from the leads and ensemble, the star of the play is Mr. McDonald’s libretto. It is, in fact, on trial for its risky nature. There are a few lines of English and jargon that made this traditionalist wince a bit. “Did you get us some good shit?” “Totally serious.” But the whole of the idea, and the whole of the libretto, is very strong and credible. And this is not to say Mr. McDonald shouldn’t, or won’t, keep tinkering the book for future performances.

The struggle many will have is whether the English libretto simply sounds too pedestrian against the gorgeous, iconic music of Verdi. It is heart rending in Italian, and it is not always so in the English. The show does work, and it’s exciting to see such a bold, successful interpretation created right here in Ann Arbor.

Editor’s Note: Tickets for La Traviata can only be bought online two days before the performance. Tickets can be bought at the theater box office, and by toll-free telephone.

La Traviata
Arbor Opera Theatre
Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 North University Ave., Ann Arbor
June 11-13 at 7:30 p.m.; June 14 at 2:00 p.m.
Check website for ticket prices

Week of 8/8/2022

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