Role of a Lifetime

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Elizabeth Futral Takes on Verdi's Irresistible Violetta in Season Opener

When American soprano Elizabeth Futral opened the Washington National Opera’s 2008-09 season as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” it wasn’t the first time she had taken on the quintessential operatic role. She’s performed the part several times before — to much acclaim — but she had also waited a considerable amount of time before tackling such a challenging role.

“You look at a part like that, it requires so much of a singer, of your voice, of your imagination and abilities as an actress,” she told The Washington Diplomat in a telephone interview the day before her performance. “When I was very young, early in my career, I didn’t feel I was ready. I wanted to wait, until perhaps I had enough life experience to truly understand the part. I waited until, oh, my late 30s to do it for the first time, and I’ve done it several times since. It’s just such a huge part. It means a lot when you do it.”

Some of the apprehension naturally stemmed from the fact that Violetta, her story and its composer loom so large in the world of opera, not just among aficionados and critics, but newcomers and occasional opera-goers as well.

“La Traviata,” like Violetta, has a complex history, based on the novel “La dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas (the son, not Dumas Sr.), published in 1848. Roughly translated as “the woman goes astray,” the three-act opera centers on a consumptive 19th-century Parisian courtesan (Violetta) who is forced to renounce her love for the sake of his family’s honor.

As an opera, “La Traviata” has many, if not all, of the ingredients that make going to the opera such a unique experience — also making it a perfect season opener for the Washington National Opera. It’s by Verdi, the giant Italian composer, it has some of the finest and recognizable music ever composed for opera, and it is emotionally over the top in its test of love, endurance, passion and perseverance.

In some ways though, it’s also a very different opera — at least it was at the time of its debut in 1853. Verdi in fact created something revolutionary: an opera set in its time — France during the reign of Napoleon II — departing from the traditional approach of setting operas in the historical past (although it took Verdi several years to stage the opera in a contemporary setting). Also raising eyebrows at the time was the story’s lead character, Violetta, who is politely described as a courtesan, which proved unsettling for mid-19th-century bluenoses, although in the end the opera, and Violetta, rose above such concerns.

“La Traviata” is also an intimate opera, with few major secondary parts to crowd out the action. In fact, there are essentially only three roles that matter. There is the sun that is Violetta, and then there are the moons of her youthful swain Alfredo — who, tragically, introduces her to the idea of true love — and Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s wise and rich father who tries to break up that true love.

“It isn’t enough to handle the part with singing,” Futral said of Violetta. “I think you have to really be able to carry it off emotionally. Everything has to be right.”

Futral, who was born in North Carolina and raised in New Orleans, does the part justice, with great vocal dexterity and range punctuated by piercing emotion.

That emotion spans the spectrum in this three-act saga, which begins with Alfredo and Violetta meeting at one of those dusk-to-dawn demimonde parties in Paris, where she’s the hostess, a shimmering vision in dark hair and a white gown. Alfredo, with all the sweeping impetuosity of youth, instantly declares his love for her, which she dismisses at first. But his insistence and ardent feeling force her to entertain the notion of real love balanced against her frivolous pursuit of pleasure, affairs and freedom.

Let’s not forget that Violetta also happens to be suffering from consumption, so she knows her life is not going to be a long one, and this colors everything she does. And of course, once she’s given up her whole world for Alfredo (played deftly by Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz), she in turn has to give him up at the insistence of his father (Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli in an emotionally strong performance). All of which brings us to the longest death scene ever assayed in opera, stage, ballet, film, literature — you name it. And Futral pulls it off in bravura fashion.

If all of this may sound familiar, it should be. In addition to the Dumas book, there was a classic 1930s film “Camille,” in which Greta Garbo dies beautifully in the arms of pretty boy Robert Taylor. “I’m going to be seeing the DVD of that,“ Futral noted.

Futral, who has won acclaim throughout the world, herself doesn’t sound all that operatic — rather more like a down-to-earth star who probably doesn’t worry too much about the ghost of legendary opera star Maria Callas, who owned the part. “You have to do it justice, and you have to do it with your gifts,” said Futral, who has also starred in “L’Elisir d’Amore” at the Washington Opera, as well as “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

And this time out, she clearly owns Violetta, from the tremulous, soaring singing to her dramatic last gasp. There is after all an art to rising out of a deathbed, ghastly white, in a kind of glorious rebirth. Futral said that “opera singers are athletes as much as artists,” and watching her you know the skill involved. It’s a high-wire act, effortlessly yet magically balancing the trapeze of classic opera, without fear or worry.

La Traviata through Oct. 5 Kennedy Center Opera House 2700 F St., NW Tickets are to 0 For more information, please call (202) 295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999