Unlike musical peers that have declared bankruptcy or operate in the red, the Virginia Opera is beginning its 31st season in the black. Friday evening at George Mason University's Center for the Arts, the company demonstrated how it's using some of that surplus to enhance its customarily fine presentations in a powerful and passionate production of Verdi's "La Traviata."

Seldom do you encounter a production in which the stage action meshes so seamlessly with the music.

Dorothy Danner's stage direction and choreography creatively translated Verdi's musical theatrics, most notably in Act 1, when the chorus returned to the stage in slow motion after a night of revelry.

From the scenery and sets to the costumes and props, the performance delighted. But the production was foremost about the music -- and what music!

With Artistic Director Peter Mark at the helm of the orchestra, Verdi's score took its place onstage as though it were a character. At times it functioned as the narrator, but more often a loving duet partner. The orchestra excelled at the dual roles, as it played with authoritative drama and supportive warmth.

In the lead role as Violetta, Cristina Nassif's strong and lively soprano nailed the acrobatic sections and filled the contemplative arias with emotion. She sang with heart, whether in a crystalline tone in the first two acts, or with a sickly disposition in the final act.

Tenor Daniel Snyder was more convincing as the vengeance-seeking Alfredo than he was as the dashing young lover who woos Violetta. His instrument is not one of heft -- indeed, his voice strained to project at the upper end of his register. But his velvety timbre, when shaped with dynamics, added a unique counterpoint to Nassif's voice. As Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, Grant Youngblood used his stentorian baritone to characterize the selfishness of a man who demands that Violetta leave his son. Yet Youngblood's Giorgio also sounded compassionate. His duets with Violetta, sung with feeling, were quite moving.

Jeffrey Halili, making his Virginia Opera main-stage debut, played a confident Gastone with good sound and projection.

Though the production was nearing the end of its tour, cast and chorus performed as though it were opening night, with delight and energy.

-- Grace Jean

Daniel Snyder, Cristina Nassif and Grant Youngblood in the Virginia Opera's "La Traviata."