ST. PETERSBURG — At first, Abla Lynn Hamza did not seem promising as Violetta Valery, the beautiful, doomed courtesan of Verdi's La Traviata. With her sharp features, and wearing a rather unstylish green gown, the soprano lacked a certain glamorous presence in the opera's opening scene as she greeted guests to her Parisian salon. And as Violetta made small talk, it was hard to make out the details, though the overall sound of Hamza's voice was suitably rich.
So, on Friday night the jury was still out several minutes into St. Petersburg Opera's production of Verdi's most accessible, most intimate opera, which rises or falls on the artistry of the soprano playing Violetta, the lady of the camellias who has tuberculosis. But that ambivalent first impression was soon turned into a triumph, as Hamza warmed to the demanding role, first in her answer to the famous brindisi to wine, love and pleasures of the moment, offered by her lover-to-be, Alfredo (Gregory Schmidt), and then in Violetta's magnificent cabaletta, her first-act curtain closer, Sempre libera.
It's a flashy coloratura display piece, and Hamza was up to the task, swigging champagne, scattering plastic flowers around the stage, her scales and trills soaring higher and higher. For the rest of the evening, she had the audience enthralled by Violetta's tragic downfall.
La Traviata is Verdi's cautionary tale on the perils of conventional morality, epitomized by Alfredo's censorious father, played by Wade Thomas. The baritone had excellent musicality and diction, but there was a lack of heft to the timbre of his voice.
Schmidt, the romantic tenor playing Alfredo, was at his finest in the ardent aria to Violetta that opens Act 2, entering from the auditorium and singing from the steps to the stage.
A.J. Wester directed the production, which runs three hours, including two intermissions. The sets (by Michael DuMouchel) are simple, and the costumes from Opera Delaware are modern, with the men in white gloves. Violetta's wardrobe improved with a smart black and gold dress in the second-act party. Gypsy dancers added a touch of androgyny.
This was St. Petersburg Opera's best adaptation to the odd staging necessary in the old church, with the conductor and orchestra positioned behind the playing area. Separating the orchestra and stage with a low wall and pillars and a scrim was effective.
It's a wonder how well synched conductor Mark Sforzini, the orchestra and cast were. For the most part, balances were good, although the chorus' entrance in the opening scene was a fraction late. Acoustically, the Palladium has its quirks. When singers came downstage, they were heard clearly (from my seat in the balcony), but from the middle of the stage or upstage, the voices became a bit cloudy. No such problems existed for the orchestra, which gave a consummate performance.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.