Nashville Opera opens its 2011-12 season this weekend with Verdi's La Traviata, one of the repertoire's greatest works. Artistic director John Hoomes is staging his third Music City version — he's directed the piece six times overall — yet he continues to find challenges in relating the raw passion of a tale in which a courtesan is the sympathetic protagonist.
"It's the Pretty Woman of opera," Hoomes says with characteristic zeal, finding common-man analogies that reflect his belief in opera's populist appeal.
"Every staging is different," he continues. "For example, in this case, we have a new set, which lends itself to new ideas. But the real trick in Traviata is staying true to its status as a historically transitional opera, positioned between the bel canto style and the later, more realistic style. It shouldn't ever turn into a full-blown, blood-and-guts verismo piece, because the music doesn't lend itself to that kind of grittiness. It's more elegant, evocative of memory. Even surreal."
The story of a young nobleman who falls in love with a lady of the evening, La Traviata features high drama and soulful arias, yet it is also fully stocked with lively duets, sprightly waltzes, nimble melodies and energizing choral numbers. The opera was rather controversial in its day — so much so that Verdi was pressured to change the show's time frame.
"Verdi wanted the opera to be a reflection of the modern society of his day," Hoomes says. "Yet critics and censors hated it being set in contemporary times , so Verdi recast the story to about 1700."
Hoomes has marvelous singers leading this production, with Jennifer Black — last seen in Nashville just this past spring as Micaëla in Carmen — performing the robust role of ill-fated Violetta, and in his Nashville Opera debut, handsome young tenor Joshua Kohl as the love-struck Alfredo. There are seven other principals, including baritone Grant Youngblood, making his local debut in the pivotal role of Giorgio.
Christopher Larkin returns to Nashville Opera to conduct the Nashville Symphony, while Amy Tate Williams directs the chorus of 24.
The opera's remaining main-stage productions for this season hold equally strong interest, one for its familiarity, the other for its freshness. Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (Dec. 2-4) was last presented locally in 2003. Composed in 1892, it's set in the world of itinerant clowns and is representative of the kind of realism that post-dated La Traviata.
"Traviata is a good first opera for people," says Hoomes, "but so is Pagliacci. It's not lengthy, and it is so human and so tragic."
The Nashville cast features three impressive singers — tenor Allan Glassman, baritone Todd Thomas and soprano Elizabeth Caballero — all of whom have performed with the prestigious Metropolitan Opera. The Cuban-born Caballero is a rising star with rich vocal skills, notably a seriously potent vibrato.
On April 12 and 14, Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) will make its Nashville Opera debut. This follow-up piece to the composer's Madame Butterfly world-premiered in 1910 at the Met. It offers a surprising tale of miners and cowboys during the American Gold Rush.
"It's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," says Hoomes, "only they're singing. This is a cool piece that audiences rarely get to see, featuring a female protagonist who teaches the men Bible lessons — and then cheats at cards. The music is fantastic. And — unusual for Puccini — no one dies!"
Soprano Othalie Graham, whose career has included numerous engagements singing Puccini's Turandot, will perform the lead role of Minnie.
For tickets and information, visit nashvilleopera.org.
For those who like their musical fare less highbrow — but no less compelling — Boiler Room Theatre's The Rocky Horror Show is a surefire tonic. Megan Murphy Chambers' directorial debut at BRT is an unqualified success, as she mines the show for all of its sexual playfulness and campy, 1950s-style sci-fi madness.
Her efforts are helped immeasurably by the visual contributions of tech director Anthony Popolo, effects and projections designer Jack Chambers and mural artist Jena Skinner. Meanwhile, musical director Jamey Green and a small combo tightly deliver the catchy rock 'n' roll score.
The thoroughly committed cast of 13 sings and dances its way through the 18 numbers, including a super-rousing "Time Warp." Geoff Davin's Frank-N-Furter is all that "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania" should be, and his slightly slurred Southern accent and half-baked pompadour lend his portrayal an Elvis-like quality — not least when he sings the gospel-tinged "I'm Going Home."
The rest of the versatile ensemble is terrific, as are Billy Ditty's goth-influenced costumes, and the exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek dialogue gets laughs throughout.
Even at 38 years old, Rocky still doesn't quite look like a conventional theater piece. Happily, it manages to maintain its deliciously twisted edge, and a sense of outright fun. Performances continue through Oct. 31 at The Factory at Franklin.
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