Stage: Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Brenda Harris and Robert Breault starred in FWO’s production of ‘La Traviata.’
Lady in Red

Fort Worth Opera’s La Traviata doesn’t raise ire, just eyebrows.


In the mid-19th century, Alexander Dumas fils’ The Lady of the Camellias had a remarkable run, going from best-selling book to hit play to successful opera in just a few years. (In the 1930s, Camille was a major film vehicle for Greta Garbo.) Opera audiences, though, had mixed feelings about a courtesan as title character. Verdi’s operatic version, La Traviata, didn’t fare well after its 1853 Venice premiere, but the work’s ingratiating melodies and moving story eventually found a place in the repertory. (Even as late as 1969, the opera was bringing out the prude in people. In reviewing a local production as a critic for the Star-Telegram I mentioned the main character’s profession. Shortly afterward, an incensed Westside matron exploded into the office and demanded to see my editor and me. After we pointed out that the character was indeed a kept woman, the visitor puffed up and said, “That may well be, but one doesn’t talk about it.”)

Many actresses still long to luxuriate in the lead role’s emotional highs, and, though the play is out of fashion now, sopranos still aspire to try on Violetta. They get to show off their vocal agility in the first act and, later on, their dramatic range.

Newcomer Brenda Harris had a go at the role in Fort Worth Opera’s two performances of La Traviata last weekend. A big, young singer with a bright, hefty voice, Harris got through the early vocal challenges with striking flexibility (although first-night jitters closed the top of her register, which may explain her skipping the popular high ending of “Sempre Libera” and taking the lower route). She neatly articulated all the rapid-fire notes, and everything seemed firmly in place. At one point — at the end of “Addio del Passato” — she floated the final moment in a glorious, sustained pianissimo as beautifully as Renata Tebaldi or Montserrat Cabelle during their glory days. Harris’ main drawback was a tendency to sound the same from one end to the other. In a role famous for vocal variety, she found few colors to play with.

Her Alfredo, the young man with whom she leaves the Paris nightlife and runs off to the country, was Robert Breault. A rich-sounding tenor with a brilliant high C, Breault is still finding his way through the role’s vocal possibilities. His performance was traditional — standard operatic dramatics with little emotional weight — as was Kelly Anderson’s portrayal of Georgio Germont, the young man’s father, who seemed more of a stuffed shirt than usual here, even though his dark basso is often interesting.

There was a hesitant, almost wooden quality to opening night that was partly director David Gately’s fault. He seemed dead-set on giving us a straightforward, old-fashioned look at a classic, though he did try to liven things up with two raucous party scenes. (Afterward, one audience member commented, “I’ve never seen so many falling-down drunks in Traviata before.”) There was also a raked stage, which inhibited some of the cast’s movement.

Alphonsine Plessis, the woman who inspired the novel, wore white camellias when she was available for romance and red ones when she wasn’t. The significance of the camellias is usually glossed over, but here Violetta gave Alfredo a white flower at the end of their first meeting, a sort of polite version of Mae West’s famous, “Come up and see me some time.” The director missed the dramatic high point of the third act, though, when Alfredo throws a wad of money at her — she was sitting with her back to him and had no idea what was going on. She also looked dowdy in a huge black gown that seemed more suitable for a funeral than a party.

The chorus sounded healthy and well-rehearsed, and the Fort Worth Symphony in the pit under Joseph Illick’s baton seemed workmanlike if uninspired. All of the ingredients for a noteworthy La Traviata were in place but just refused to gel. On the bright side, for the first time in years, both performances sold out.

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