In February 1852, when Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was in the midst of his most creative period, he and his future second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, were visiting Paris and they went to see a new play written by Alexandre Dumas fils.
The play, “La Dame aux Camelias” (“The Lady of the Camelias” or simply “Camille”), so greatly inspired Verdi that he immediately began envisioning an opera based on it.
Commissioning Francesco Maria Piave to write the libretto, the two of them turned out the new opera in near-record time.
Titled “La Traviata” (loosely translated as “The Frail One”), its popularity soared after a shaky start and, for more than a century and a half, it has been in the standard repertoire. From 2008-13, it was listed by “Operabase” as the most frequently performed opera worldwide.
It also is one of the New Orleans Opera Association’s most frequently performed operas and it is being staged again this weekend, with a Friday night performance and a Sunday matinee. Robert Lyall will conduct the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and French soprano, Gabrielle Philiponet is singing the title role.
Equally proficient in the French and Italian repertoires, Philiponet has sung in some of the leading opera houses of France and elsewhere in Western Europe. A previous performance as Violetta at France’s Opera de Massy “confirmed her evolution to the lyric soprano repertoire,” according to a French reviewer.
The story line centers around a beautiful but physically and emotionally fragile Paris courtesan who Piave and Verdi renamed Violetta Valery. She and Alfredo Germont (sung by tenor Daniel Montenegro) fall in love and begin living together but their romance is short-lived.
Alfredo’s nobleman father (sung by baritone Weston Hurt), unhappy with his son’s choice of a woman from a lower social echelon, persuades her to give him up. Soon afterward, with Violetta stricken with tuberculosis, the lovers are briefly reunited before she dies.
Other cast members include Carla Dirlikov (Flora), Ken Weber (Baron Douphol), Dennis Shuman (Gastone), Jacob Penick (Marquis d’Obigny), Ivan Griffin (Dr. Grenville), Brandon Wear (Giuseppe), Taylor Miller (Commissionaire) and Guy Tem (Flora’s Servant).
For New Orleans native James Marvel, directing such a familiar opera for his sixth time is all the more special since his wife, soprano Kathryn Frady, will be making her New Orleans Opera debut in the role of Violetta’s maid, Annina. The two of them have worked together on several other productions and, according to Frady, “I actually think that sometimes we’re at our best in these kinds of environments.
“As a director, James likes to take what he knows about a performer and add that into the character,” Frady said. “And, because he knows me so well, we already start off at a level that’s a little bit further along than he would be with singers he’s not familiar with. So it’s a lot of fun when we work together.”
A native of Dallas with a degree in musical performance from the University of North Texas, Frady is making the most of her local debut. Despite her character’s limited role in the production, she also had the opportunity to sing Violetta’s lead role for four days during rehearsals while Philiponet was delayed by visa-related difficulties.
“I was absolutely excited to be doing this,” Frady said. “It’s been a great experience learning that role.”
Marvel, a De La Salle High School graduate who has spent much of his career on the road, said he is thrilled to be directing his first opera in New Orleans in nearly a decade.
“I think that if someone has never been to an opera before, this is a fantastic starter,” Marvel said. “The story is extremely compelling and it is Verdi’s most personal opera. The love story between Violetta and Alfredo is really tremendous and moving. ... It’s one of those pieces I never get tired of and whenever I direct it, it’s always like a new work to me.”