Relationships are funny things, and I don’t mean funny as in amusing. I mean funny as in complicated, heartbreaking, exhilarating, tragic — the stuff of opera. And nobody has portrayed this better than composer Giuseppe Verdi, especially in the production of “La Traviata” performed this weekend by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
In Italian, “la traviata” literally means “the one led astray,” which refers to our heroine, the courtesan Violetta — though whether she was led astray earlier in her life or is being led astray in this story is one of the questions we might ask ourselves. Certainly in the world of the opera (and in the world of composer Verdi and librettist Francesco Piave, who set the play their own time period), Violetta leads a scandalous life, even by Parisian standards. How we pin our sympathies to her and recognize her purity of spirit is one of the marvels of this tale.
After an ethereal rendition of the Prelude (played by the UK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Nardolillo), the opera opens at Violetta’s party; the setting is indeed contemporary, and appropriately opulent, as designed by Robert Pickering and costumed by Susan Wigglesworth. We watch Violetta’s hedonistic friends faux-kissing one another in what seems to be another night of smug emptiness. The odd man in the room is Alfredo, who seems to have sincere feelings toward his hostess. Portrayed by tenor Taylor Comstock, Alfredo’s body language conveys his shyness even before he says a word.
This is an intimate opera — no grand spectacle here — so sidelong glances, posture, a pensive stare, speak volumes, and this is easily the best-acted production by the UK Opera Theatre that I’ve seen. Every character onstage is engaged and fully realized. Even in the party scenes, lighting designer Tanya Harper deftly shifts focus from one small group to another, clarifying the action.
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When Violetta first meets her young suitor, she laughs, and the contrast of the two halves of their first duet is telling: Alfredo sings with a warm earnestness, while Violetta is all light sparkle.
Comstock is so consistently lovely of voice that we might take for granted how really good he is. As for Violetta, Jessica Bayne plays her as a steely bon-vivant, effortlessly singing her coloratura passages as she celebrates her life of pleasure. But this is only one of the facets of Violetta — as the opera continues, this flashy side drops away, to be gradually replaced with more dramatic and lyric singing. Can one soprano play all these parts? Ms. Bayne can. And does. All evening long. Violetta is rarely off the stage, but Bayne’s energy never flags, even as she convincingly portrays the degeneration of a woman dying from consumption. (At one point she even sings — beautifully — while lying on the floor.)
Bayne closes Act I with a brilliant study in character. We actually see her thinking before the opening lines of “È strano” — “How strange ... to love and to be loved” — and as this leads into the carefree cabaletta “Sempre libera,” we can see that an opposing force has been awakened in her soul. While singing of the joys of freedom, she angrily knocks all the tableware to the floor, trying to convince herself to stay on the path she has chosen.
In Act II, we see that she has followed her heart. She and Alfredo are blissfully living together in a country house. Complications arise, through the interference of Alfredo’s conflicted father (sturdily played by Michael Preacely), and Violetta leaves Alfredo. His reaction is a jumble of motivations — sorrow, revenge, anger, desperation — and he recklessly decides to publicly confront her.
By the end of the play, Ms. Bayne as Violetta has transformed both physically and vocally to such stark effect that it’s difficult to remember our first encounter with her. With few friends left and little money, Violetta is fading. After a moving prayer scene, the lovers are reconciled, and when the curtain falls (literally), the shock of it all is stunning.
Even with all of the great performances, the design, the lighting, the music, the choreography, the balance is just right; this opera all works together as a whole, unified under the direction of Richard Gammon. It’s a production to see and hear. See it alone. See it with someone you love. See it with someone you’re pretending to love. This is a story that resonates with whatever experiences we bring to it — an examination of romantic love: that “mysterious, otherworldly delight and torment of the heart.”
Note: This opera is double cast. The cast reviewed will perform again at 2 p.m. Sunday.
What: University of Kentucky Theatre’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, sung in Italian with English supertitles
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $38 adults, $33 senior adults, $13 students