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September 23, 2009

Opera: A soprano’s dream

Elizabeth Futral returns to Louisville for ‘La Traviata’

Singing the role of Violetta in the Verdi opera “La Traviata” is the stuff sopranos’ dreams are made of. It’s a role to which nearly all aspire, by which many are judged — and very few make their own.

“It’s one of the best ones,” says Elizabeth Futral, the dazzling soprano starlet who sings her version of Violetta on the Brown Theater stage this weekend, as she headlines Kentucky Opera’s season-opening production of “La Traviata.”

“In fact,” says Futral, “it’s kind of daunting, and I put it off for a while because I was afraid I would be judged by what others had done before — the wonderful historical recordings, the memorable historical performances, great singers who have sung the role of Violetta. So you’re up against that wealth of knowledge the public has about the piece — which is great, that they know it and love it. But it is also daunting for a young singer to take that on.”

Entering the prime of her career, and armed with name recognition and confidence, Futral has plunged into “La Traviata.” In the past two seasons, she has created her own Violetta on stages from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York to Berlin.

“I waited until I felt I had a little more — a little more something to say,” she says. “Now I’m trying to find my own voice with it.”

Futral appeared previously with Kentucky Opera, singing Musetta in a 1993 production of “La Boheme.” In fact, her return to the Louisville stage is something of a homecoming, because her parents, Guy and Nancy Futral, now live in Louisville. James Marvel directs the production, with Sebastien Gueze singing Alfredo and Donnie Ray Albert as Germont.

There are few roles in opera more beloved than Violetta — the French courtesan who adores the glitter and gaiety of the high life of Paris, but gives all that up to fall deeply in love with Alfredo. That their love ends in tragedy is the story that has left opera fans in tears for 150 years.

The story originated in a novel by Alexandre Dumas called “Lady of the Camellias,” about an actual beauty Dumas knew in Paris named Marie Alphonsine du Plessis. Greta Garbo played “Camille” on the silver screen. In the movie “Pretty Woman,” Richard Gere flies Julia Roberts off to San Francisco and tells her she will either hate opera or love it forever. The opera they see is “La Traviata,” and tears roll down Julia’s cheeks for Violetta.

As the Verdi version begins, Violetta is hosting a lavish party in Paris. Life is but folly, and only pleasure counts — for love burns fast, she sings. But as she swirls in waltz tempo among her guests, she comes suddenly upon Alfredo, who is hopelessly love struck by her. The lady of the camellias hands Alfredo “a flower that blooms and dies,” and the tragedy of their love is foreshadowed.

Later, Violetta plays her emotions one against the other in two arias, sung back-to-back. In “Ah, fors’ e lui,” she sings of her newfound love for Alfredo. Then, in “Sempre libera,” Violetta dismisses the notion of leaving the glamorous life. I’ll fulfill the round of pleasure, she sings. Joying, toying from flower to flower, I will drain a brimming measure from the cup of rosy joy.

But will she? In Act II the story deepens, and the acting begins. Violetta has chosen to move away from Paris and live happily in love with Alfredo. But Alfredo’s father Germont, who does not at all approve of Violetta, confronts her. Germont demands she release his son from her spell. Interestingly, there is no villain in this tale.

Previewing a performance by Futral in a National Opera production of “La Traviata,” soprano Elizabeth Roberts explained to The Washington Post why everyone so loves it. “The three principal characters (Violetta, Alfredo and Germont),” Roberts said, “are all trying to do the right thing, so you can really relate to all of them, which is just heartbreaking.”

Violetta understands the father’s concern for his son, and she also knows she may be dying. The scene plays into Futral’s acting ability: a hurt look here, a canted eyebrow there, subtle gestures with delicate fingers — all hinting at a flood of emotions coursing through her character — defiant, dramatic, determined, distraught ... and finally destroyed. She shrinks gradually into the resignation of her fate, almost physically diminishing before our eyes.

Audiences today expect the stars to act their roles, as well as sing them, and Futral seems perfect for the new style.

“I’m very interested in the collision of the theater world with the music world, which is opera,” Futral says. “I know how powerful it can be when someone really invests themselves in the character — and the music, equally. How they combine to say something happy, or sad, or deep.”

One thing that hasn’t changed with “La Traviata,” though, is the lingering problem of explaining just who — and what — Violetta is. A courtesan? What is that? Opera boosters rush to explain that Violetta is not a prostitute. Oh, not at all. In 19th century Paris, you know, a courtesan was an accepted part of society.

But Futral quickly pops that balloon.

“She’s a high-class hooker,” Futral says flatly. “I mean, she really is. But she is definitely high class. She’s an intelligent woman. She’s clever. She’s a good businesswoman who has figured out how to work this system. And she has found a way to have a good life, materialistically speaking, by being an escort — and more — to wealthy men in Paris.”

And with such style.

“She surrounds herself with camellias, and makes that her signature flower,” Futral continues. “Camellias were so expensive, something extravagantly lovely. And Violetta likes extravagance. She has the most beautiful clothes, the most beautiful jewelry, and she, herself, is beautiful.

“But,” adds Futral, “she is so much more.”

Bring a hanky.


Kentucky Opera’s ‘La Traviata’
Sept. 25 & 27
Brown Theater
$35-$95; 8 p.m. (Fri.), 2 p.m. (Sun.)


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