The Parisian glitter and gaiety are what catch audiences' eyes most easily. But when the partygoers drift offstage and the spotlight lands on a woman of ill repute, the young man who loves her, and his disapproving father - that's when Verdi's "La Traviata" really exerts its pull.
That's also when Opera Carolina's staging of "Traviata," which opened Thursday, takes hold.
Jonathan Boyd, as young Alfredo, sings sweetly in his little aria wooing Violetta, the fallen woman of the title. When he leaves, and Violetta muses on how he affects her, Jennifer Black spins the music out with a quiet and lyricism that reveal there's more to Violetta than the party girl her fellow revelers see.
Mark Rucker, who gave a commanding performance as Verdi's Macbeth for Opera Carolina in 2004, brings some of the same gravity now to Germont, Alfredo's father. But as Germont pressures Violetta to abandon his son for the sake of his family's honor, Rucker sings with a sonorousness that makes Germont better than a mere a mere villain. Dignity and compassion come through, too.
But that doesn't change the sacrifice he induces Violetta to make. As her desperation and broken-heartedness come out in Verdi's music, each emotional turn comes through in Black's voice. When Violetta pleads, the outpourings surge out over the orchestra. When she gives in, the mere thread of sound that emerges from her shows how drained Violetta is.
The rest of the opera plays out with just as wide a spectrum. As jealousy takes hold of Alfredo, who thinks Violetta has jilted him for another man, Boyd's ring and abandon embody the desperation. But lyricism returns in the finale, especially from Black. Her veiled tones make the ailing Violetta's last aria sound as if she's already halfway gone from this world.
On Thursday, the Charlotte Symphony, conducted by Joel Revzen, played with force enough to underline the singers' intensity, delicacy enough to complement their poetry. Kay Castaldo's staging sometimes enhanced them, too. At the start of Act 2, as Boyd's Alfredo described his happy life with Violetta, Castaldo had Violetta join him for a little picnic. That was a departure from the usual staging, but effective, since the audience gets to see so little of the couple before Germont intervenes.
But Castaldo threw in other twists that didn't work. At the outset, the orchestra's prelude accompanied grave-diggers at work and Alfredo sobbing before a coffin - as if we didn't see enough of his torments later. After Violetta's last-act aria, a dancer garbed in black swept onstage and swirled around her, as other characters were spotlighted behind them. Silly.
The partygoers' antics reached the point of silliness, too. Obviously, those scenes need to be lively. But Castaldo pushed the skirt-chasing and other revelries beyond what an opera chorus - with its singers of various sizes, shapes and degrees of acting ability - can convincingly pull off. Thank goodness that the men's boxer shorts reached down to the tops of their socks.