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March 12, 2009

Peabody Opera offers multi-soprano 'Traviata'

Peabody OperaWell, that was different.

Ordinarily, there has to be a really mean flu bug going around an opera company before you would end up with three different sopranos singing portions of the title role in Verdi's La Traviata on a single night. But Peabody Opera Theatre has taken this unusual path intentionally.

In a program note, director Garnett Bruce writes that the triple casting allows "more students the opportunities to study and perform this role" and protects "young voices from exhaustion at the naissance of their careers " A cynical reading of that may lead one to conclude that the school just doesn't have any sopranos at the moment who can get all the way through the opera unscathed. Judging by last night's cast (which sings again on Friday), I'd say that at least one of the three sounded more than ready for the whole role, and the other two not far behind. I wonder how yet another three sopranos will fare tonight and Saturday -- yes, another three; Peabody typically double casts its operas, but this sextuple arrangement is really wild. (Surely six different Violettas for a single production has to be some sort of record.)

Bruce certainly took the let's-give-everybody-a-chance approach and ran with it, designing a concept to justify the plethora of sopranos. Each Violetta appears in each act -- one as the 'live' character caught up in the drama, two as ghostly, been-there-suffered-that observers. That sure made more sense, of course, than just changing the lead after each intermission and hoping no one noticed. I wasn't totally persuaded by it all, but ...

there were times when the sight of the already departed Violettas reacting to the tragic chain of events registered quite effectively. In the last act, the expiring Violetta seemed well aware of the others, in an "I see dead people" sort of way, and that certainly hit home. I especially liked when the Act 1 party-girl Violetta cavorted during the brief Mardi Gras passage of that last act, momentarily forgetting about the tubercular Violetta facing her doom.

In the end, the idea worked well enough theatrically, and I imagine some folks will walk away thinking about how each Violetta's characteristics contribute to an archetype of the fallen woman with a heart of gold, and how each man in her life "sees something different" in her (as Bruce writes). Or maybe not.

Vocally speaking, Eun Hye Ju, who sang Act 3, was the standout last night, her voice sizable and warm, with a good deal of coloration. Not everything worked technically, but the soprano's intense singing suggested considerable promise. Jennifer Holbrook tackled Act 1 with a bright, if rather tight, tone and telling phrases. She sang part of Ah fors'e lui lying on the floor, still producing plenty of sound. Beth Stewart started Act 2 tentatively, but the voice soon opened up to reveal a tonal sheen that carried the soprano's expressive phrasing.

The evening's sole Alfredo, William Davenport, sounded very much like a significant tenor-to-be. His voice is not large, but has a certain sweetness that can surely be refined, and he should be able to strengthen the top register in due time. He already knows how to shape a Verdi melody quite elegantly. Eun Seo Koo was a work-in-progress. The baritone did not have the high notes or the nuance to fill out Germont's music, and his phrasing was monochromatic. The rest of the cast proved spirited, if technically uneven. (By the way, the supporting roles and chorus were attired in contemporary formal wear, the three principals in 19th century costumes -- another element of Bruce's concept ripe for intermission discussions.)

Hajime Teri Murai conducted with a remarkable flair for the rhythmic elasticity that was once more commonly encountered in Verdi performances. Other than wiry violins, the orchestra turned in a poised, sensitive performance. I was intrigued by the occasional portamento from the strings last night -- something else you don't usually hear today. I'm not sure if Murai actually encouraged it or it happened because a few players lost their discipline, but, either way, I liked it. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE (Cory Weaver, photographer): Beth Stewart, kneeling, Jennifer Holbrook and Eun Seo Koo


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:41 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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