Opera: 'La Traviata' By Opera Ebony

Posted: May 09, 1986

For 11 years, Opera Ebony has been a showcase and a proving ground mainly for young black singers and directors making their way in opera. Even in the earliest years, when funding was negligent, the work was serious and the presentation full of justified hopes.

The company returned to the Academy of Music last night to perform La Traviata in a way that typified its recent work. The singers were mostly young and developing, and the spirit of the ensemble, singing in English, provided a momentum that gave the work its theatricality and raised it above the ordinary.

The focus of these productions is on the singers. The staging, by Anthony Stivanello, is simplified, a succession of painted fabric hangings that provide neutral backgrounds for the singers. The drama exists in the singing and the magnetism of the cast members. In the very plainness of this production, a good deal of the poignancy of the opera was preserved.

Much of that was due to the conducting. Everett Lee, who has been in the pit since the beginning of the series, created long lyrical instrumental support for the singers and ample, energized tone painting. He unobtrusively adjusted the orchestral weight to the singers' capacities and provided rocklike solidity when that was needed to move the ensemble. That orchestral sensitivity was important, for the principal singers were relatively young in the craft and clearly rose to the music with Lee's helpful conducting.

In the title role, Rita McKinley displayed an appealing light soprano voice and developed a portrayal that will grow deeper with time, but will probably not lose its effective innocence. The role asks a voice of extraordinary range and color. Her big first-act scene was sketched. The emotional development built into the aria was only partly achieved, but her singing was clear and apt for the portrait of a young Violetta. Her voice is a lyric soprano that lacks weight at the low end, but seems easily produced and used.

The subtleties and nuances of the role were there often enough to suggest that she is aware of the possibilities without having the capacities, at this point, to find them all.

Opposite her, Ronald Naldi sang Alfredo's role with a strong, rather blunt style and played the role with the stiffness that seemed based on a need to see the conductor's right hand. The duet with McKinley in the first act went smoothly enough, and his drinking song in the opening was more cautious than might have been expected.

Baritone Peter Lightfoot made a good impression as Germont. His voice has the expressive qualities for the role, but the emotional distance the role requires in the second act was not yet his. His performance, too, was bothered by his hoarseness at the end of the act, which made his subsequent appearances tentative.

The rest of the cast provided a brightly costumed and often witty tapestry against which the drama unfolded. Director Janet Bookspan had included some details in the party scenes that heightened the effect and made the sense of movement more plastic.

The company will repeat the work tomorrow, with Marilyn Moore and Gregory Hopkins in the central roles.


Music by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Conducted by Everett Lee and directed by Janet Bookspan, settings by Anthony Stivanello, lighting by William H. Grant. Presented by Opera Ebony at the Academy of Music. Final performance May 10.

Violetta Valery - Rita McKinley

Alfredo Germont - Ronald Naldi

Giorgio Germont - Peter Lightfoot

Barone Dauphol - Reginald Pindell

Dr. Grenvil - Kevin Short

Flora Bervoix - Lorene Spain

Marquis d'Obigny - Richard Slater

Gastone - Perry Brisbon

Annina - Mertine Johns

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