All-time and timeless7/2/2014
Off in faraway places, I’m always hearing about our city’s opera. The rising star Michael Mayes, en route from one big stage to another, even got in touch via Skype to share his “deep respect” for the Des Moines program. This season, the Metro Opera’s (D.M.M.O.) 42nd, singers and musicians again gather from all over. Caitlin Lynch, who sings Violetta — the lead in “La Traviata” — has performed at New York’s Met.
Really, what’s to keep a person without an opera background from trying it out? The venue at Simpson College doesn’t have a bad seat, and the back rows cost less than most rock shows. Supertitles above the stage translate the libretto (the lyrics). For a splurge, you could enjoy the pre-curtain lobby buffet, the menu matched to the show: Italian, for instance, for Giuseppe Verdi’s “Traviata.” It’s great people-watching, too, with folks dolled up in their finery.
Actually, you’ll see a few dressed down; it’s still Iowa. More importantly, this artform depends on emotions anyone can recognize. Opera works in broad strokes, giddy or tragic but always intense. As for “La Traviata,” the title translates as “the corrupted woman,” meaning Violetta, a Paris “courtesan,” a high-priced escort. She never clears her name; like many an opera heroine, she dies at the end.
Her story first surfaced in a 19th Century bestseller, a weepie about a good man trying to save a fallen woman. Also a natural for the movies, as “Camille” it made Greta Garbo a star — but Verdi’s 1853 smash remains the indispensable adaptation and one of the world’s premier operas. The drinking song that erupts during Violetta’s opening party has a catchiness that cuts through the centuries; you know you’ve heard it somewhere. Also, then as throughout, the D.M.M.O. throws in physical comedy, superbly timed.
But this happy moment also includes the production’s gloomy visual motif, as veiled women in white weave through the crowd. The art deco set features a silkscreen of the nude Venus, but other pretty young things include a few ghosts. From the first, Violetta is coughing up blood, and her Act One aria, “Sempre libera!” (“Forever free!”), feels desperate for all its beauty.
Caitlyn Lynch possesses a knockout soprano, and a lesser production would be all her, Violetta and the Pips. But both Diego Silva and Todd Thomas, playing the suitor and his father, understand their roles. Their stately lower melodies provide the dark against which we watch a falling star, and make the fall devastating. The tragedy feels contemporary, as if Violetta were a careless youngster with AIDS, and the opera proves another to rave about, wherever you find yourself.
Overheard in the Lobby: This year’s lineup includes “Dead Man Walking,” a very different work, written in English and first performed in 2000. My review next week will include a talk with the composer, Jake Heggie. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.