Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello Star in Cincinnati Opera’s “La Traviata” – July 26, 2012

Cincinnati Opera mounted its 113th performance in history of Verdi’s most often performed opera, “La Traviata”, as part of its 92nd season of grand opera.  To perform the roles of the lovers, Violetta and Alfredo, Cincinnati Opera enlisted the husband and wife team of Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello – two of opera’s new generation of handsome, skilled actors with world class voices.

Imported from the Lyric Opera of Chicago was that company’s venerable 1993 production, originally conceived by Tony award winner and Academy Award nominee Frank Galati. Its sets and costumes were designed by Desmond Heeley (who, himself, won Tony awards in both artistic categories.)

Staging the Cincinnati Opera mounting was the brilliant Argentine Director Jose Maria Condemi. The conductor was Carlo Montanaro, in his Cincinnati Opera debut.

Pérez’ Violetta and Costello’s Alfredo

Although Pérez and Costello were both students together at Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts, with both of their careers on a steep upward trajectory, they have had limited opportunities to appear together.

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta Valery; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]

(Californians, such as myself,  have been fortunate to have seen them as Romeo and Juliet (see my review at Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010), as Faust  and Marguerite (Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011), and as Rodolfo and Mimi (see L. A. Boheme: Pérez, Costello Lead Youthful Cast in Classic “Cinematic” Production: Los Angeles Opera, May 12, 2012).

[Below: Alfredo Germont (Stephen Costello, left) expresses his love for Violetta Valery (Ailyn Pérez); edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]

There have been surprisingly few operatic marriages in which both partners are at the same artistic level and have voices that resonate with each other. But Pérez and Costello both have voices of complementary weight with the vocal agility and acting skills to excel in the youthful, lyrical “love story” roles of the French and Italian repertories. Significantly, they have each received the Richard Tucker Award (never more than one presented annually), which boasts a lustrous roster of recipients.

Both Costello and Pérez have separately become favorites of opera companies and their audiences in both North America and Europe. When they appear together it becomes a celebrity and even a social media event. (Check out Youtube for a “Traviata” duet for the Cincinnati Opera Board of Trustees that turns into a trio when their dog Tequila joins them in singing.)

Casting emerging celebrities in operatic roles does not necessarily assure a great performance, but the two together created a memorable “Traviata”. Pérez was particularly effective (it is, after all, one of the greatest soprano roles in all of opera). It is a complex role with different challenges in each act, but Pérez’ beautiful legato line and scintillating coloratura showed mastery of every challenge Verdi posed.

[Below: Desmond Heeley’s set design for the country estate in which Violetta and Alfredo have lived happily; edited image of a Lyric Opera of Chicago photograph.]

Particularly spectacular was Pérez delivery of the most famous soprano cavatina-cabaletta combination in all of opera – the lyrical Ah, fors’e lui che l’anima and Sempre libera.

I, myself, have seen live performances as Violetta by Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, to list three divas from the past generation of artists, and by such contemporary singers as Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay and Marina Poplavskaya. With full respect for each of these great Violettas, I have no trouble including Pérez with this illustrious group.

I have at times felt that opera companies have undercast the role of Alfredo, even though he has some of the most familiar tenor arias and duets in opera. Not so with Costello, who was an excellent Alfredo, portraying Violetta’s lover with the proper mixture of ardor and haplessness.

[Below: Alfredo (Stephen Costello) reflects on his lover’s vow to stay with him forever, which will soon be revoked; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]

His second act solo aria De’ miei bollenti spiriti was spot on spirited and its cabaletta O mio rimorso! delivered with such style that I regretted that the production observed the traditional cut of the stretta and repeat verse of the cabaletta.

The Other Vocal Performances

Sardinian baritone Marco Caria was a solid, sonorous Giorgio Germont. Audrey Walstrom, as the maid Annina and Claude Cassion as Dr Grenvil, joined the trio of principals in the final act quintet, in the 21st century more often restored than cut.

Stacy Rishoi was Flora Bervoix, Kenneth Shaw the Marquis d’Obigny, and Jonathan Stinson Baron Douphol. Giuseppe (Luis Alejandro Orozco) and Messenger/Flora’s Servant (Jose Rubio) played the others in service.

[Below: Desmond Heeley’s set design for the Flora Bervoix’ house in Paris; edited image of a Lyric Opera of Chicago photograph.]

Of the smaller roles, especially skillfully performed was that of character tenor David Cangelosi, in his Cincinnati Opera debut, as Gastone, Alfredo’s first act wing-man and Flora’s third act party animal.

Two of Verdi’s great middle period operas – “Rigoletto” as well as “Traviata” –  have grand parties. There are several party-going men in comprimario roles – Borsa, Marullo and Ceprano in “Rigoletto” and d’Obigny, Douphol, Grenvil and Gastone in “Traviata”.  Verdi assigns the latter (particularly with Cangelosi in the role) with much to do – introducing Alfredo to Violetta, watching out for him, and later joining in the bullfighter high-jinks at Flora’s party.

[Below: Violetta (Ailyn Pérez front center in black dress) is distressed to be confronted by Alfredo (Stephen Costello, front, far right) as Gastone (David Cangelosi, in bullfighter garb, first row, far left) and Dr Grenvil (Claude Cassion, first row, second from left) look on in horror; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]

Here the combination of Condemi’s always insightful stage direction and Cangelosi’s well-honed acting skills made this small part particularly interesting. Cangelosi’s Gastone was always the central figure in the background, directing the audience’s attention to the principals when plot and music called for it, or the reverse, when the chorus’ reaction is what the director wishes us, on the other side of the footlights, to concentrate upon.

[Below: Violetta (Ailyn Pérez), knowing she is dying, clutches a treasured letter; edited image, based on a Philip Groshong photograph, courtesy of the Cincinnati Opera.]

Conductor Carlo Montanaro provided a sympathetic reading of the score. I’ve commended his uncut operatic performances elsewhere (see Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012), and note that some of the traditional cuts in “Traviata” have been restored in this performance (but not all, most notably Germont’s cabaletta).

But, noting that every note expected in a late 19th or 20th century performance of “Traviata” was there, with the addition of some parts of the score that never used to be heard, this proved an excellent performance of “Traviata”, with the final scene of Violetta’s death particularly affecting.

For my interviews with Ailyn Pérez, see: Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 and Ailyn Pérez, Rising Stars – An Interview with part 2.

For my interviews with Stephen Costello, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and  Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.

For my interview with David Cangelosi, see: Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi.

For my interview with Jose Maria Condemi, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi, Part I.