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Sujung Kim takes on the challenging heroine of Verdi's "La Traviata."

Violetta Returns

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In an opera season made up of familiar old friends, perhaps the oldest and best friend of all has waited until the end of the party to make her grand entrance.

Friday night at the Carpenter Center, the curtain will go up on Verdi's "La Traviata," the work that first brought Virginia Opera's director Peter Mark to Hampton Roads and earned rave reviews for the fledgling group in 1975.

Now, a quarter of a century and four "Traviatas" later, Verdi's tragic heroine will party, love, cry and finally die in the arms of the only man she ever really loved.

"La Traviata" is the dark side of "Pretty Woman" — there is no chivalrous Richard Gere to rescue Julia Roberts. Instead, the heroine, Violetta Valéry, one of Paris' most brilliant and vivacious courtesans, is gradually destroyed by a male-dominated society that is a metaphor for the tuberculosis that kills her at the final curtain.

Verdi's opera is one of those works opera lovers invariably pick to take to the proverbial desert island when they can only choose two or three of the greatest. The composer poured some of his most beautiful and heartfelt melodies into the opera, in the process creating one of his loveliest and most elusive heroines.

It is that elusive quality which has attracted so many of the greatest sopranos to the role — Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Joan Sutherland, Anna Moffo, and that's just a start. Virginia Opera's Violetta is Korean soprano Sujung Kim, who has won over local audiences since her debut in 1995 in another Verdi tragedy, "Rigoletto."

Kim clearly loves the role, although she is relatively new to it. She has sung only one previous performance of Violetta, at Opera Columbus in Ohio earlier this season. And she readily admits that it is probably the most vocally challenging and heavy role she has taken on.

"They say you need three voices to sing Traviata," Kim says, laughing. She explains that a high, brilliant voice is needed for Act I, a more lyric sound for Act II and a more dramatic voice for the end. Those who have the latter can't always manage the light, high music of the first act, while light-voiced sopranos may come to grief in the more tragic parts of the opera.

Although Kim has sung light soprano roles, she has always considered herself a full lyric who happens to have agility as well. So she feels that Violetta is a good fit for her voice. At the same time, she is aware that pacing herself is important if she is to deliver the emotional goods at the opera's conclusion.

Kim also notes that while she has to become the character, she has to maintain her vocal control. "I can't let myself start to feel too emotional, or I won't be able to sing it," she says.

Violetta is not the only meaty role. Her lover Alfredo gets to sing one of opera's "greatest hits," the Drinking Song. And Alfredo's father Giorgio Germont progresses from being callous and selfish to accepting Violetta. Virginia Opera will introduce two singers in these roles. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich will sing Alfredo, and baritone Guido Lebr¢n will be Giorgio.

As the company revisits "La Traviata," what draws conductor Peter Mark back?

"It's Verdi's most romantic and intimate opera," he says.

Mark believes audiences never tire of this work, which he calls "searing" in its emotional impact. At the same time, he believes it's a perfect opera for those who may never have gone to one before.

"There is gaiety onstage in the party scenes, a lot of the music is familiar to people who have never been to an opera, and the story is very straightforward," Mark explains.

At the same time, experienced operagoers are drawn back by the depth of Verdi's characters and music.

Mark is especially excited about this revival under the direction of Bernard Uzan, who is the husband of Diana Soviero, Mark's first Violetta back in 1975.

Uzan exudes passion about opera in general, and this work in particular. He has staged 14 pervious productions of it, and he says each one has been different, because he has had different artists to work with.

He sees his job clearly.

"I once asked a soprano, 'Do you want to be blocked or do you want to be directed?'" Uzan recalls. "I can block an opera in a couple of days."

Directing, on the other hand, takes weeks, because he works on every line and every nuance, together with the conductor and artists, to bring the opera to life. His goal is to reach the emotional truth of the work. "If the audience can't feel this, then there is no point in putting the opera on," he says.

— Landmark News Service

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