Still, as a director, Zambello primarily seeks to draw out the emotional heart and human drama of the story, bringing to vivid life both the small moments and the overarching thrust of the tragic story. Conductor Arthur Fagen similarly obliges by drawing out beautiful warmth and lovely detail from the orchestra. In the wrong hands, dynamic passages of “La Traviata” can sound bouncy and circus-like, and the sorrowful passages can become melodramatic and strained, but Fagen keeps things admirably on track, staidly reigning in the bounce and always evoking the real tragedy and genuine emotion, the deadly seriousness, at the heart of Verdi’s music. Small quiet moments, such as Alfredo’s discovery of Violetta’s letter, pop alive with tension and emotion through the music.
On opening night, leads Zuzana Marková as Violetta and Mario Chang as Alfredo didn’t elicit much heat or excitement in a restrained rendition of their opening duet, but they more than made up for it in the intimacy and loveliness of what followed. Dramatically, Marková’s Violetta comes across as alert and intelligent, existential in her understanding of her situation; she delights in society, enjoys becoming the center of its noisy storm, but remains its ultimate outsider, fully aware of her position. These are qualities that the Czech soprano, making her American debut, evokes especially well in a darkly contemplative and solitary “Ah, fors’e lui” in Act 1. Her sense of both softness and fortitude, vulnerability and strength, during Act 2’s “Ah! Dite alla giovine” comes across beautifully, as well. Chang brings out Alfredo’s impulsiveness and his intensity. His outrageous initial devotion for Violetta comes across as believable, as does his sudden turn from naive devotion to rage and revenge in Act 2. In duets, both he and Marková shine exquisitely in quiet, delicate bel canto passages.