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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Choir Delivers Passion to La Traviata

On Oct. 3 and 5, the Opera Company of Middlebury (OCM) presented a concert staging of Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata at the Town Hall Theater. The production, directed by OCM Artistic Director and Executive Director of the Town Hall Theater Doug Anderson and joined by the College Choir under the direction of Associate Professor of Music Jeffrey Buettner, wowed sold-out crowds with big-city talent on a small town stage.

This staging is remarkable in many ways. The orchestra, College Choir and members of the principal ensemble practiced together for only three days, or about six hours, before opening night. It is a testament to the professionalism, dedication and preparatory rehearsal time of each of those groups that La Traviata appeared as a polished, seamless performance after so little combined rehearsal time.

Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata follows Violetta, a character based on real-life Parisian high-priced prostitute Marie Duplessis, who arrived in the city penniless and slept her way to a position as one of the richest women in Paris. Critical of decadence, aristocratic privilege and 19th century gender roles, La Traviata is a sumptuous production filled with party scenes and extravagant behavior that is also a tragedy, following Violetta’s journey from loose woman to doting wife to dying patient. Her ornate lifestyle is literally killing her, most likely from tuberculosis, and tragic forces separate her from the man she loves.

The songs of La Traviata are extremely recognizable, including the rousing drinking song “Libiamo,” which includes full ensemble and choir, and Violetta’s aria, “Sempre Libera.”

Soprano Rochelle Bard demonstrated an impressive vocal range and control as Violetta, appearing in most of the acts with her consistently rich vocals. She portrayed a woman of extravagance well, displaying ecstasy and agony in equal measure as Violetta traveled an emotional roller coaster.  Bard has performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall in New York City and with opera companies around the country.

Joining her were the equally impressive tenor James Flora as her doomed lover, Alfredo, who has previously performed with OCM and will be performing with the Metropolitan Opera in 2014, mezzo-soprano Olga Perez Flora and decadent baritone Brian Major as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio.

There is an athletic dedication to the craft of vocalization present in opera that requires not just exquisite knowledge and care of the vocal chords, but practiced control of breath, diaphragm, posture, emotion and foreign diction. It is not singing that makes one a diva. It is the personification of passion through meticulously crafted trills, controlled vibrato and mastery of dynamic phrasing that allows a singer to even consider themselves a diva. Opera singing is difficult, and these professionals did it with an ease that made it seem as natural as carrying on a conversation.

The fact that the Town Hall Theater and Opera Company of Middlebury are consistently able to draw world-renowned opera stars to participate in their productions is astounding. And the cost for this professional quality performance, $40 to $50 per ticket, is a fraction of the expense of a large-venue production, making an art form stereotypically labeled as elitist or snobbish accessible to an entirely different audience.

Tickets to the Metropolitan Opera’s production of La Traviata, running this December and January, are selling for upwards of $400 each. This is due to the sheer number of people, in addition to the principal singers, required to stage such a lavish performance, including up to 80 orchestra members and equally large choirs, depending on the piece. On a stage as prestigious as the Met, opera stars charge large fees, and some production companies have started to place financial caps of $500,000 on each production. Operas cannot be staged eight times a week in the same manner as a play or musical because of the physical demands on the singers, who have required days of rest when they occasionally don’t speak at all to save their instruments.

Ticket fees cover only about 50 percent of the Opera Company of Middlebury’s production costs, with sponsors, intermission refreshment sales and raffle profits covering the remaining half.

The College Choir, fresh off of their summer tour to Berlin, Prague, Liepzig and Vienna, participated as the opera’s chorus. This community and collegiate collaboration provides students a unique opportunity to work with experienced opera singers and appear in a professional production.

Leo DesBois ’15 participated with the Choir in Madama Butterfly two years ago, and he is thrilled by the opportunity the musical collaboration provides.

“It’s incredible to kind of be so close physically to these amazing soloists to experience that level of musicianship, and also to work with a professional conductor of the caliber of Emmanuel Plasson, who has conducted at the Met, and all over the place,” DesBois said. “He brings an intensity and a precision to his conducting that you don’t get to experience very often. It’s also amazing that it’s such a big ensemble with the orchestra right there, the conductor, the soloists in this intimate setting, it makes you feel like it’s the real deal, because it is.”

Since the semester began, the Choir’s four-hour a week rehearsals have consisted primarily of Verdi’s La Traviata choral repertoire. Their only additional rehearsals were a sitzprobe, or seated rehearsal, on Tuesday, Sept. 30 and a ticketed dress rehearsal on Wednesday, Oct. 1. These rehearsals paid off, as the Choir was phenomenal throughout the opera, easily performing at the professional level.

The Choir’s first collaboration with OCM came in the Fall 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly after Anderson approached Buettner in the spring of 2012 about the possibility of working together. Due to the huge success of that teamwork, Anderson approached Buettner again about La Traviata, which has a critically important choral component.

“We had to learn the music very, very quickly, and with an opera, the challenge is not just learning the music but the Italian text and also the timing of the entrances, because the chorus is sort of like a minor character who has to pop in every now and then and say things, and it’s hard to get that timing right when you’re not with the soloists and with the orchestra,” DesBois said.

Orchestra, chorus and OCM members alike brought a thrilling combination of professionalism and musical excellence that made the three and a half hour opera seem much shorter. The audience buzzed with excitement at each intermission and, after the show, thrilled at the rare experience OCM and the Town Hall Theater creates twice a year.

OCM’s Spring 2015 production is Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, which will be staged May 30 to June 7.

The Town Hall Theater also broadcasts Live Metropolitan Opera productions on its big screen for a $24 admission fee, giving the community an opportunity to view the Met’s productions for a fraction of the in-person cost. The Met’s season opener is Le Nozze de Figaro on Oct. 18. Tickets are available for a discounted $10 for students at the Town Hall Theater box office. More information about the College Choir is available at go/choir.