Central City Opera shines bright

The 2015 season opens with a winning production

Amanda Tipton

Colorado’s high-altitude gem, the Central City Opera, opened Saturday night ( July 11) with a winning production of Verdi’s La Traviata. The production, under the direction of John Baril and stage direction by Elise Sandell, runs in repertory through Aug. 8.

This Traviata is set in 19th-century Paris, with no signs of updating or directorial high-handedness. The sets by Peter Harrison are traditional but effective, with good use of color and light to set the mood for each scene. The party scenes — one with strong blue accents, one with deep red against black and gold — made especially good use of Central City’s shallow stage.

As the ardent lover Alfredo Germont, Ryan MacPherson got better through the evening, starting with a somewhat raw sound and reaching for his top notes but ending with a confident, pleasing tenor. Troy Cook made the elder Germont as sympathetic a character as possible for the unyielding bourgeois who precipitates the opera’s tragedy. His performance was a shade too careful, but his rich baritone won the audience and received well-deserved “bravos” at the curtain.

But the star of the evening is “la traviata” herself, “the wayward one” Violetta, and with Ellie Dehn the Opera has a Violetta of the first rank. She has sung at Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, and on the strength of her performance here she should have more major appearances in her future.

Blessed with a lovely voice, Dehn sang with control and expression. The decorative passages were not mere technical display, but expressions of her fickle nature before she discovers her love for Alfredo. Her signature aria “Sempre libera” (Forever free) was just one shade too insistent, as if trying to convince herself. And in the final scene, Dehn used the contrast between the full-voiced singing that Verdi demands, and more halting moments to convey the contrast between Violetta’s soaring spirit and her failing body. Opera lovers should fill the house to hear Dehn’s Violetta.

The orchestra played beautifully under Baril’s direction: supportive, precise, never overshadowing the singers. The chorus was outstanding, especially the great ensemble at the end of Act II, with dramatic contrasts between full voice and softer passages.

Central City’s other major production of the summer, Leigh and Darion’s Man of La Mancha, opens Wednesday, July 22, and runs through Aug. 9. If all you know of this familiar show are sentimental performances of “The Impossible Dream,” Central City’s production will reveal other facets of the script and music.

“There’s nothing sentimental in the production,” Court Watson, the set and costume designer, says emphatically.

Director Paul Curran observes that Man of La Mancha was written in 1965 — at the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests — and begins as the story of a man who has been imprisoned for his beliefs. “The parallel could not be any more clear,” Curran says. “This is a piece of political protest.

“The piece is very funny, it’s incredibly touching, and incredibly brutal in places. And it’s a major commentary on its time.”

As for “The Impossible Dream,” the show came out only months after Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

“Everyone in that opening-night audience knew exactly what they were talking about,” Watson says.

The production takes place on a nearly bare stage, representing the prison. The prisoners, who become the characters in Don Quixote’s fantasy of an ideal world, will only have suggestive bits and pieces of costume to mark their transformation. Leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination, Curran and Watson say, gives the show an “emotional immediacy” that is very powerful.

The summer also includes two one-act chamber operas, each about an hour, to be performed in alternative venues in Central City, then taken on the road to reach new audiences. These very different works make a fascinating complimentary pair for the adventurous.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier’s Don Quixote and the Duchess, a frothy Baroque-period comic opera based on a little known incident in Cervantes’s novel, will be performed July 28 and Aug. 1 in Central City and Aug. 6 in Fort Collins, with a small cast and a standard 18th-century orchestra.

Contrasting in just about every way, Benjamin Britten’s church parable based on a familiar story, The Prodigal Son, will be performed July 29 and Aug. 5 in Central City and July 30 in Colorado Springs. It has a cast of men plus a treble chorus, with the unusual ensemble of horn, trumpet, viola, double bass, harp, percussion, alto flute and organ.

“I think people will [want to see both],” Christopher Zemliauskas, music director of both productions, says. “The Britten is a very moving story. We all know it, but he makes us think about it in a different way. And the Boismortier is just fun. It will be a blast.”

On the bill:

Central City Opera, 2015 Summer Festival

La Traviata. Through Aug. 8.

Man of La Mancha. July 18 to Aug. 9. 

Don Quixote and the Duchess. July 28, Aug. 1 and 6.

The Prodigal Son. July 29-30, Aug. 5.

Tickets: 303-292-6700 or https://centralcityopera.org/tickets/buy-tickets.