Oropesa is an unforgettable Violetta in Met’s “Traviata” revival

Thu Feb 27, 2020 at 2:39 pm
Lisette Oropesa stars in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Richard Termine

There’s a melancholy feeling that very occasionally accompanies the greatest performances. Tangled up in the thrill of witnessing a historic interpretation of an iconic work comes the sad realization that you may never encounter its equal.

The Metropolitan Opera has seen a number of superb sopranos appear as Violetta Valéry in the past decade: Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Sonya Yoncheva, and Angelina Gheorghiu are just a handful of the most recent leading artists to make a mark in La Traviata’s touchstone role. 

The sensational performance that Lisette Oropesa gave on Wednesday night in her role debut at the Met deserves to be counted in the very first rank. 

Oropesa brings a voice ideally suited to the role: direct and lively, bright yet round, so focused you can almost see it as it pierces through the air of the auditorium and slams into the back wall. Yet even with its power and laser clarity, her soprano never feels aggressive, as she wields her instrument with musical sensitivity and classic elegance.

Those qualities were all in evidence right from the start of Act I, but it was the end of the act that made clear what a memorable performance this was going to be. “Ah! Fors’è lui” showed not just the glittering brilliance of her voice, but also the intelligence of her approach. If Oropesa has a vocal shortcoming, it’s that she doesn’t quite have the softness of timbre to float a true pianissimo high above the staff. Rather than reaching for an effect that wasn’t there, she crafted a delicate phrase that could lead to something more like a mezzo-piano. She never lost the slightest bit of control as she blazed through the cadenza that links the two halves of the scene, arriving at a “Sempre libera” that was spectacular without being merely showy. She flitted through even the trickiest turns of the aria with ease and grace, while still maintaining a focused energy in her voice that underlined Violetta’s fierce determination.

By Act III Oropesa had crafted such a vivid arc, from the burning brightness of her spirit through her grim decision to sacrifice her own happiness for the needs of another, that the quiet despair of “Addio del passato” was shattering. Keeping a tighter rein on the volume and color of her voice, she still had the basic clarity she displayed in the first two acts, but by pressing just a touch here and there she added rich emotion, finding new colors in the breathtaking softness of the second verse. Oropesa might not be the most outwardly passionate actress on the stage, but there is something honest and endearing in the simplicity of her expression: as Act III wore on, she actually seemed to be turning more and more pale in real time.

There is no question who was the star on Wednesday night, but a strong supporting cast made for a well-rounded evening, rather than a top-heavy one. As Alfredo, Piero Pretti gave a commendable performance with a slightly reedy tenor that had a bright ring and never felt strained. He showed a lovely, cooing mixed voice in “Parigi, o cara” channeling pure, tender feeling in his last moments with Violetta.

Luca Salsi’s tended to bark his powerful, granite baritone as Germont, but at his best he found a burning warmth, and showed a surprising flexibility for so large and heavy a voice. “Di Provenza il mar” showed the best of his ability, as he approached the simple melody with liquid lines and found velvet softness in the echoing phrases.

Jeongcheol Cha stood out among the comprimarii for his powerful, barrel-like bass-baritone in the role of the Marquis D’Obigny, and Dwayne Croft brought an unusually viscous sound to Baron Douphol, briefly Alfredo’s rival. Sarah Larsen offered a warm, firm mezzo as Flora, and Maria Zifchak was tender as ever in her endearing portrait of Annina.

Aside from the star soprano, the standout of the night was Bertrand de Billy, leading a sublime rendition of the score. His reading was lithe, graceful, and delicately layered, yet also brimming with emotion, reaching for a broad dynamic range. The elegant yet festive pulse he found for the “Brindisi” was just one early example of consistently expert pacing, maintaining enough energy to keep the score’s many party scenes driving forward but allowing its melodic lines space to breathe. The support he offered his singers could hardly have been better: near the end of Act II’s first scene, as Violetta pleaded “Amami Alfredo,” he swelled right along with her, bringing the full orchestra along in soaring arcs that sat just a hair below Oropesa. The Met orchestra and chorus both glowed under his direction.

Traviata being such a core staple of the repertoire, the 2018 Michael Mayer production will see plenty of use for as long as it survives—which hopefully will not be long. With its technicolor costumes and blandly ornate sets, it offers little style, little substance, and little challenge. Mayer’s boldest choice, bringing the unnamed Germont sister onstage as a human prop, is also his greatest blunder, as she sits awkward and mute on the side of every scene in which she appears. Even on a night when exceptional music-making can carry the performance, a piece as rich as La Traviata deserves more thoughtful treatment.

La Traviata runs through March 19 at the Metropolitan Opera. metopera.org

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