Grand opera returns to Baltimore


The pensive Elizabeth Futral, as Violetta, writes her farewell letter to Alfredo in Lyric Opera Baltimore's production of "La Traviata." (Sharon Redmond and Rich Riggins )
November 6, 2011

The long-awaited rebirth of grand opera in Baltimore, after the bankruptcy and liquidation of the venerable Baltimore Opera Company in 2009, was proclaimed on Friday night. Lyric Opera Baltimore, a new company also based in the Lyric Opera House, opened a promising new season with a production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The grand old house has been renovated through the generosity of patrons Arthur Modell and his wife, Patricia, whose recent passing was noted with a heartfelt moment of silence.

Contrary to popular belief, a critic is glad to be proven wrong about an artist’s shortcomings. Having written off Elizabeth Futral’s chances with Violetta after her turn in the role with Washington National Opera in 2008, it was a pleasure to hear her singing in such good form in the title role. The intricate fioriture were just as accurately defined and the high notes just as thrilling, but the more lyrical parts of the role sounded much stronger, too. Part of this may be due to the smaller size of the theater, which Futral filled with beautiful sound down to a rounded chest voice. The American soprano, who enjoyed some early career successes in Baltimore, marked the moment by reverencing the Lyric stage at the curtain call.

Unfortunately, tenor Eric Margiore’s Alfredo was not in the same class, with a sound more like a baritone and high notes that went from feeble to nonexistent. Baritone Jason Stearns had a dignified, paternal presence as Germont, with plenty of vocal resonance but little nuance of line and distorted Italian pronunciation. The supporting cast and small chorus sang competently, but the ensemble numbers often teetered toward chaos because of rushing on the stage that conductor Steven White could not control. White, who is married to Futral, led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra — generally fine, except for a few wrong notes from somewhere to his right — in a generously romantic reading of the score, crafting some lovely sounds for Violetta’s numbers especially.

The very traditional staging, originally directed by Frank Galati for Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1990s, featured somewhat moth-eaten sets (designed by Desmond Heeley), evoking the musty pleasures of the 19th-century roue — old-school in the best sense. The evening was not without other troubles: a half-hour delay of the opening curtain, because of parking and ticket nightmares, and technical issues that required the use of a “simplified lighting design.” Still, one was left with the sincere hope that Baltimore’s operatic venture will have a lasting resurrection, not like the tragically temporary one of this opera’s heroine.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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