Looking at it purely from the artistic side of the balance sheet, why would any opera company today program La traviata? Few other pieces face as fierce competition for a performance ideal - in recordings, current productions accessible online, and that one great long-ago performance whose embers remain aglow in many a memory.
Only if you thought you had real artistic news to make - say, with the next terrific Violetta - would any opera company worth its salt release yet another version into the operasphere.
Opera Philadelphia, it turns out, made a good bet on Lisette Oropesa, its Violetta, who made her company and role debut Friday night at the Academy of Music. Anyone who heard her in 2007 as the Dew Fairy in the Metropolitan Opera's Hansel and Gretel knew the small role was but a promise, and here she arrived with enormous powers. Through a series of stepped vocal shadings over more than two hours, she embraced Violetta's bubbly spirit, infused it with the pale resignation of the dejected lover, and, ultimately - in following one of Verdi's shrewdest emotional zigs - beautifully navigated the last moments of a euphoric consumptive. Oropesa has the instrument for the role, and she has the emotional intelligence.
Her performance grew. If in "Sempre Libera" Friday night her intonation and note placement were pinpoint accurate and her sound commanding, by Sunday afternoon the aria had acquired nuance. With her added lift on the word translating as "free," you felt buoyed.
For anyone concerned after Andy: A Popera, the first production of the season, that Opera Philadelphia risked forgetting how to do traditional opera, La traviata arrives as an impressive high-water mark. The mid-20th-century-style production from the Bucharest National Opera House stacks up dozens of ornamental Parisian doors, essentially creating an acoustical shell and pushing the action to the front of the stage. Here, through the nearness of the perch and the strength of Oropesa's vocal qualities, pivotal moments gained an immediacy hard to achieve in a hall this big. When Violetta, visited by her lover's father, Giorgio, gives in to his request to leave Alfredo, Oropesa sings of her sacrifice and certain death so quietly and with such purity she brings the entire audience into her shrunken existence.
Her security was contagious. The orchestra, led with supple moments of personal expressiveness by Corrado Rovaris, sometimes needed more saturation of sound (at that sad opening string music), or greater power (at the very end). Still, there were wonderful points of contact between singer and a single instrument doubling him or her.
Director Paul Curran assembled party scenes that were eye-popping without becoming simply ridiculous and that kept the focus on an excellent chorus. Of Curran's many fine touches in the final scene, some were painful to watch, but they resonated smartly with score and text.
What this production doesn't have is an Alfredo to match Violetta in presence. Alek Shrader is a fine tenor with a tight, highly controlled sound that worked well in light accompaniment, but that, at least in the first two performances, didn't pack a punch equal to the dramatic demands. The best chemistry happens between Violetta and Alfredo's father, sung by baritone Stephen Powell. Powell was born to sing this role. He looks it, he acts it, and he brings a lovely humanity to it. The last part comes by way of a voice that is not only deeply resonant, but also full of overtones.
Bass-baritone Andrew Bogard - a recent Curtis Institute of Music graduate - made a particularly strong showing as the doctor, signaling the continuing tradition that big talent can lurk in small roles.
Presented by Opera Philadelphia through Oct. 11 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets.