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The Soprano Always Dies

April 30, 2011

Opera fans know that almost any operatic scenario culminates in the tragic death of the heroine, who is almost always a soprano. Chalk it up to high drama or the composer’s postulation that, like art, beauty and nobility are just too fine to survive on opera’s mean, albeit musical, streets.

But not all opera heroines suffer from an overdose of purity. Often, death concludes the character’s redemption. What could be more cleansing, after all, than sloughing off the very mortal coil that has carried us toward perdition? Such was the case with Violetta, heroine of “La Traviata,” literally “The Fallen Woman.” Madison Opera’s excellent production of Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th century potboiler opened Friday at Madison’s Overture Hall.

As in most cases, the road to redemption follows a pretty obvious route. Violetta (soprano Elizabeth Caballero) is a former courtesan, beautiful but not the type of girl one brings home to the mother. However, Alfredo Germont (tenor Giuseppe Varano in both his Madison Opera and U.S. debut), smitten by Violetta, does not stand on convention. He wants her, eventually occupying a beautiful country home with her after a romance that lasts no longer than a scene change.

All is well until Violetta, who apparently purchased the spread with her trollop’s wages, is forced to sell her worldly good to make payment on the manse. Alfredo uncovers her scheme and leaves to buy back her goods just before his father Giorgio Germont (baritone Donnie Ray Albert) arrives, intent on convincing Violetta to leave her son alone. Albert’s commanding baritone is effective, causing the wanton woman to abandon the man who loves her. Alfredo is, of course, heartbroken.

Eventually, deus ex morbus rears its fetid head, afflicting poor Violetta with consumption (tuberculosis), no doubt in restitution for her sinful past. Just before she succumbs, Alfredo appears to take her in his arms, where she marshals her last energies then collapses in an unglamorous heap. Sic semper liberalitas.

Madison Opera, always known or booking top-drawer talent, rose to new heights with Caballero, whose magnificent soprano undulates with power and control rarely experienced. She seduces not only Alfredo, but all of us with her vocal charm, rich and sumptuous in its tone and lyrical in its majesty. The Cuban-American soprano, who previously appeared in Madison’s Opera’s production of Carmen, alone is worth the price of admission.

Top marks, too, go to baritone Albert, whose performance of Giorgio yields a rich, deep timbre every bit as compelling as Caballero’s soaring cadenzas. As Alfredo, Varano arouses more sympathy than empathy in a role that puts him second in presence to Caballero, up to whose performance level the tenor can only pretend to rise.

John deMain and members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra do their usual fine job interpreting a narrative that once again proves the classical operatic thesis that the soprano always dies.

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