If you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s recent movie “Lincoln,” you’ve seen and heard soprano Mary Dunleavy. The singer, who makes a cameo appearance in the film while Abraham and Mary Lincoln discuss potential legislation in their box seats at the opera, graces Atlanta with her interpretation of Violetta Valéry, the female protagonist in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata,” which concludes Sunday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
The casting of Dunleavy as the 19th-century Parisian courtesan was brilliant. Violetta is apparently her signature role, one that she has reprised at the Metropolitan Opera several times. It was evident that she was entirely comfortable inhabiting the role here with the Atlanta Opera as well.
Verdi dominated and revolutionized Italian opera in the interim between Donizetti’s last bel canto hit, “Don Pasquale,” in 1843 and Puccini’s initial verismo success, “Manon Lescaut,” in 1893, but his “La Traviata” is still very much steeped in the tradition of elegant vocalism and double-aria forms that his predecessors Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini established during Verdi’s formative years. Armed with incredible dramatic instincts and musical genius, Verdi created in “La Traviata” an enduring domestic tragedy centered on Violetta Valéry’s sacrifice for her beloved, composing what has become one of the most popular and performed operas in the repertoire.
Verdi undoubtedly would be pleased with the Atlanta Opera’s staging of the work, because Dunleavy delivers an exquisite performance of his heroine in every aspect. Her Act I singing of the cavatina “Ah forsé lui che l’anima” and the following cabaletta were captivating. She possesses a voice with squillo, a.k.a. ping, omnipresent in both sustained and agile passages. Her voice and look were transfigured in Act III for Violetta’s final act and aria, “Addio del passato.” The squillo was gone, but not the lovely core of the sound or the brilliant legato. (Happily, Dunleavy is scheduled to return to Atlanta next season in the role of Gounod’s Marguerite.)
Conductor Joseph Rescigno returned to lead the opera orchestra and a cast that was almost ideal. Baritone Weston Hurt, last heard in Jun Kaneko’s controversial “Madama Butterfly” in 2008, sang the role of Giorgio Germont with wonderful proficiency and warmth. He negotiated the upper reaches of “Di Provenza” with utter ease, and his singing complemented Dunleavy’s throughout their lengthy, four-movement duet at Violetta’s country home in Act II. Regrettably, however, Russian tenor Boris Rudak did not impress in the role of Alfredo. His lovely timbre and admirable legato were overshadowed by passages of questionable intonation and awkward moments onstage.
David Gately directs the Atlanta Opera’s “Traviata.” Several years ago, Gately constructed a clever “La Cenerentola” at the Cobb Energy Centre with Jennifer Larmore in the title role, and it’s evident that his work is most satisfying in scenes that involve comedy and a wealth of stage business. Flora Bervoix’s party, heavily populated by the stellar Atlanta Opera Chorus and set within a monochromatic scarlet drawing room, is just such a scene. A single Gypsy girl (dancer Tamara Merritt Irving) entertained the inebriated guests, including Gastone (played by tenor and natural comedian Wesley Morgan), and created both strife and passion between Flora and her love interest the Marquis D’Obigny, sung by the talented mezzo-soprano Maria McDaniel and bass-baritone Jason Hardy.
The Opéra de Montréal production, last seen at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center in 2005, was revived and reassembled this season, but much has happened to the Atlanta Opera while the handsome Claude Girard-Bernard Uzan sets were hibernating. Dennis Hanthorn arrived as general director, implemented strategies that put the company into the black and secured a more glamorous and suitable venue at the Cobb facility. Now, seven months after Hanthorn’s hasty resignation, the opera’s board of directors is almost at the conclusion of its search for a new visionary.