La Traviata: Ari Pelto

October 29, 2018 | By Opera Colorado | La Traviata
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Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

By Kelly Maxwell

Watching Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto conduct a rehearsal is an exhausting and fascinating experience. Knowing that he doesn’t philosophically separate the musical score from the drama of the libretto, you can understand why he is singing to the orchestra, talking through every note and dramatic beat. Listen to him walk through an aria, such as Violetta’s “Sempre libera” in Act 1 of La Traviata, and you almost get the sense that he knows Violetta. Indeed, Maestro Pelto’s relationship with La Traviata is one that spans decades. It was his New York City Opera debut in 2004, and he has conducted it many times since. So in a way, he undoubtedly knows Violetta, maintaining a long-term rapport with her story and her music. Read more to find out what his favorite moments in the score are, how this cast is preparing for their roles, and how Verdi’s success with La Traviata developed over time.

Opera Colorado’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata opens Saturday, November 3. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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Why don’t we just start with the Traviata 101. What should audiences know about the show before you raise your baton?

First of all, it’s a piece that was premiered in 1853, and initially, it was not a success for Verdi. Already a well-known opera composer, there were high expectations for him. Additionally, the Alexandre Dumas play, La Dame aux Camélias, was a very popular hit in the 1850’s. Initially, Verdi was not at all interested in the idea of putting a prostitute onstage. When you think about it now, we can see how that was a radical and risky proposition, for Dumas to produce a play like that, and for Verdi, with his burgeoning reputation, putting his career on the line. potentially one would think on the line to produce a play that had this kind of a character. I think this is one of the first times where a composer really put a real person on stage, a person with flaws and vulnerabilities. A person who wasn’t a heroic, formulaic character, but a person with great strength, but also great vulnerabilities and a deeply human story.

The reason why the show totally relevant today and will always be relevant, is that art, opera in this case, is exploring the human condition: human suffering, human love, relationships, and sickness. That is just as relevant, just as important today as it was in 1853. As long as there are human beings in the audience, in our community, and onstage, a story about a complicated human being and her relationship to other complicated human beings will be relevant. Always, always, always. After that initial failed run, Verdi thought, “It’s a good piece and time will tell if it can be a success. Maybe this particular first production is not an indication of what the piece is worth.” And sure enough, within the year, there was a second production that was so much more successful, and it took off from there.

Soprano Cecilia Violetta López (Violetta) and tenor Eric Barry (Alfredo) in costume for Verdi’s La Traviata. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

I was wondering if you could speak to your past experience of working with Eric and Malcolm and then what it’s been like with Cecilia so far.

So tenor Eric Barry (Alfredo) and I first met about six or seven years ago doing a La Bohème, and I adore him. He’s delightful, warm, and incredibly engaging. He’s also a great cook and we share recipes. This might be the fourth or fifth time we’re doing a show together. He is so open and willing try anything. His voice has a special color that is relatively rare. He has a great command over the instrument and he can sing anything upside down.

Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie (Germont) was last here for The Scarlet Letter and is such a highly thorough and incredibly probing musician and mind. With Chillingworth, he was constantly trying to get at the deepest psychological aspects of a complicated psychological character. He is the kind of artist who thinks deeply about what feels right and true for his character. He’s got an incredible voice, with an incredibly intense sound without pushing. His role is very difficult. Germont’s big aria is a nightmare for most baritones, but he sings it wonderfully. I’m thrilled to have him back. Despite singing this role so many times — his score is 25 years old and has millions of markings in it —  he’s extremely open and interested in what we’re looking for here and new ideas. He’s not the kind of guy who says, “Well look, this is the way I do it, so just back off and I’ll do it.” When somebody has that kind of experience and is still open, curious, agile and humble, that’s a great joy.

Soprano Cecilia Violetta López  is somebody that I’ve been looking forward to working with for a while, and she came to mind immediately. She is utterly charming and an incredibly expressive singer. She manages to do what’s very rare, but also very necessary in this role; she sings just on the edge of control, which is a reflection of Violetta herself. She is somebody who does not play it safe. Sure, she has moments of pragmatism and is a realistic person, but she is also somebody who knows where her edge is. She has a real flair and fire. Cecilia has that ability to sing on the absolute edge of emotion, but still maintain a beautiful sound.

What are your favorite moments in the piece?

It’s very hard to think of La Traviata and not think of Violetta’s show-stopping end of Act 1 aria, “Sempre libera.” It is an iconic, dramatic moment for a soprano, in a category of total virtuosity. If somebody can sing it successfully on stage, they walk on water as far as most of us are concerned. At the same time, thanks to the genius of Verdi, it’s completely connected to this sense of who is this woman is and where she is in her life.

Opera Colorado Music Director Ari Pelto and Assistant Conductor/Chorus Master Sahar Nouri in rehearsal for Verdi’s La Traviata. Photo: Opera Colorado/Kelly Maxwell

How do you feel at the end of La Traviata, knowing how it is going to end?

I can’t believe this, and I don’t think she was joking, but last night Cecilia said that when she first saw La Bohème, she was sure that Mimi was going to live and he seemed absolutely genuine about it. I was astonished to hear that. Most people know or expect that Violetta is going to die. It’s a little bit similar to La Bohème in the idea that you feel the tragedy — and I suppose this is in a way what life is about — the tragedy and sadness lands on the other people who she’s important to. So, Alfredo does her wrong because he’s hot-blooded and rash, and he immediately sees that he’s done something horrible. Nonetheless, the idea that carries some responsibility here, not for her dying of course, but for the idea that she’s been alone with her maid instead of being cared for by the man who loves her. You feel that very clearly and we will endeavor to make it as clear. Alfredo clearly recognizes the pain he has caused her and feels a terrible sense of culpability.

How do you go about using music in a technical sense to underscore these human and character themes of the story?

That’s a really important question, something that I will talk about over and over if we get a chance. I don’t make a distinction between music and drama. For me they are completely connected and completely intertwined with language and text. So when I’m working on something, it’s to try and make the sound reflect what we believe to be the emotional dramatic intention. That goes for the orchestra as well. I spend a lot of time singing to the orchestra and telling them what they’re coloring in the moment. I say, “She’s being defiant and saying, ‘I’m fine. I’m relying on my belief in pleasure to get me through this party,’ and that’s why this instrumental articulation needs to be like this here.” I have a huge pet peeve when people say, “The music was really great, Ari.” For me, yes, I’m conducting the orchestra and I’m conducting the singers, but for me, I’m not conducting the music. I’m conducting the show, where the drama and music are all totally connected together. It’s not exactly a pet peeve, but I’m taken aback. I don’t even understand separating it from the story. There’s no difference.

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