In honor of the Verdi bicentennial, Atlanta Opera presented La Traviata at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on March 2. 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 company while these handsome Claude Girard–Bernard Uzan sets were hibernating. General director Dennis Hanthorn arrived in Atlanta, implemented strategies that put AO in the black and secured a more glamorous and suitable venue for its productions at the Cobb Centre. Hanthorn resigned abruptly in August 2012, after eight years at the helm. In April, the board announced the appointment of stage director Tomer Zvulun as AO’s new general and artistic director.
Joseph Rescigno, a close colleague of Hanthorn’s, returned to lead the opera orchestra this night. Luckily the disappointing execution of the prelude was no indication of what was to come. Verdi’s gentle and heart-wrenching introduction lacked character, tone and any dynamic contrast whatsoever. It was as if the players had no frame of reference for the significance of the “Amami Alfredo” motive that Violetta would proclaim in Act II.
The casting of soprano Mary Dunleavy as the fallen woman Violetta Valéry was providential and redemptive. Dunleavy’s singing of “Ah fors’è lui” and the following cabaletta was technically and aesthetically captivating. She possesses a voice with squillo, omnipresent in both sustained and agile passages. Violetta is Dunleavy’s signature role — one that she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, as well as several other important theaters. She was entirely comfortable inhabiting the role here as well. Dunleavy’s voice and look were entirely transformed 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.
Young Belarus-born tenor Boris Rudak was an unimpressive Alfredo. His lovely timbre and admirable legato were overshadowed by passages of questionable intonation in Act I. Rudak’s voice might be better appreciated in a smaller venue alongside voices comparable in size. Baritone Weston Hurt, last heard here 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 duet.
David Gately directed Atlanta’s Traviata. As demonstrated in his clever Atlanta Opera Cenerentola (with Jennifer Larmore) a few seasons ago, Gately’s work shines 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-red drawing room — was just such a scene. A single Gypsy girl, dancer Tamara Merritt Irving, entertained the inebriated guests, including Gastone, played by natural comedian Wesley Morgan, and also created both strife and passion between Flora and the Marquis D’Obigny, sung by the talented mezzo-soprano Maria McDaniel and bass-baritone Jason Hardy.
While Atlanta Opera has provided dashes of non-traditional fare to its patrons over the past five years (including Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket), its board of directors recently announced the 2013–14 season and plans to play it safe with warhorses Tosca, Faust and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It’s not a daring bill of fare, but as long as we hear singers of Mary Dunleavy’s caliber, it’s a potentially satisfying one.