La Traviata: Bel Canto brings down the house

Driven by the inexhaustible energy that Barga has come to expect of her, Sally He Li promised a memorable evening at the Teatro dei Differenti on Saturday, following up on the Bel Canto Opera Festival’s highly successful maiden season in 2014. She more than delivered. From the curtain-rise ballroom scene to the final breath of Giuseppe Verdi’s greatest heroine, Violetta Valery, the Bel Canto “La Traviata” was extraordinary.

The voices of the three principal artists — Sally in the soprano role of Violetta, tenor Alberto Sousa as her lover, Alfredo Germont, and baritone Bruno Caproni as Giorgio Germont, his father — could not have been more compelling. Singing the most venerated composition in Italian opera, they would have brought down the house anywhere, from La Scala and Covent Garden to Lincoln Center.

The absence of an orchestra, which might have been a musical shortcoming, went unnoticed thanks to the stunning talent of English pianist Julian Evans, beautifully accompanied by Italian violinist Barbara Pinna. In effect, their two instruments were a de facto orchestra, conveying the full, lilting range of emotional peaks and valleys that chart the courtesan Violetta’s wary surrender to love and the price she pays for it.

What made the achievement all the more impressive is that Sally Li had never performed in “La Traviata” before — and only began learning its demanding arias a scant two weeks ago, when illness obliged the scheduled soprano to withdraw from the production. That Sally was also the festival’s founder, producer, general administrator, publicity agent and chief ticket salesperson, is downright astonishing.

One after another, the production struck chords that elicited waves of thunderous applause and bravos from the sold-out seats and stalls of the Differenti.

No one will forget the stage entrance of Bruno Caproni, who is among the leading baritones of his generation. In the name of social convention and the endangered marriage prospects of his daughter — the “right kind” of husband isn’t available to a family that includes a woman of easy virtue — Giorgio Germont must convince Violetta to leave Alfredo. She has renounced her entire past for his son, and many baritones fail to make the scene persuasive. But Caproni carries it off brilliantly through his sheer commanding presence, along with the immense power and precision of his voice. Like Paolo Nutini in the world of popular music, he is a child of immigration from Barga to the United Kingdom, and a proud cultural ambassador for his family’s ancestral town,

We have known about the heart-rending beauty of Sally Li’s voice for several years.Sally the actress was a revelation. Like Maria Callas, the iconic Violetta of the 1950 and 1960s, she captured the complex nuances of a woman who understands that love is embraced at the expense of liberty, yet yields to it nonetheless, only to see her worst fears realised.

The Portuguese tenor Alberto Sousa was note-perfect, both literally in his vocal control, and figuratively as the unwitting engine of Violetta’s destruction. His love is never in question, but his personality flaws — jealousy, unreasoning anger, the insecurities of a weak son to a formidably controlling father — are deadly in their consequences.

The genius of Verdi, and his daunting challenge to opera singers, is that each of these roles is drawn with profound psychological depth and subtlety. Li, Caproni and Sousa meet that challenge with remarkable skill and grace. Sousa is also to be lauded for his vital contribution to the opera’s stage direction.

Barga has longed to see Sally in an operatic lead role ever since she married Osteria proprietor Riccardo Negri five years ago and made this her hometown. I’m not alone among her friends and neighbours to hope that next year will see a repeat casting — Sally as Tosca, perhaps? Or why not Madama Butterfly? — and that the event’s heavy administrative responsibilities will be delegated to some of the accomplished managers who are her supporters.

Cuts from the full libretto — which includes a dance performed by a chorus of gypsies and matadors — were inevitable, given the limitations of a small stage and cast. The sole, relatively minor quibble this critic would offer is that the second scene of Act Two, a high-society party at which the elder Germont confronts the effects of his actions, might have been shortened rather than eliminated. It is a necessary dramatic bridge linking Violetta’s agreement to leave Alfredo, her return to her former lover, the sinister Baron Douphol, and her eventual death from consumption.

The Baron is played with appropriate menace in Act One by the American novelist and screenwriter Tom Gabbay, who owns a home not far from the Centro Storico. He is among a coterie of talented local residents, including Barga accountant Emma Biagioni, the English artists Chris and Krysha Bell, and American entrepreneur John Urmson, who populate the ballroom where Violetta and Alfredo fall in love with each other.

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