Symphony shines in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’


On March 13, the Central Ohio Symphony continued its 43rd season with another remarkable concert. On the program were Jennifer Jolley’s “Motordom” and a concert presentation of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.” First, however, came the rousing rendition of a short work that may have surprised some in the audience: the soaring State Anthem of Ukraine, which celebrates the freedom of the Slavic nation that once again is under attack by an autocratic dictator. Orchestras around the free world have rightly condemned the invasion by playing Ukraine’s national anthem and declaring their solidarity.

Jennifer Jolley’s “Motordom,” a modern 9-minute work, was next. Jolley is a former OWU faculty member and serves on the Symphony’s Board of Trustees. She now teaches at Texas Tech University’s School of Music in Lubbock. The young composer was present at the performance and provided some background on the work. “Motordom,” she explained, is her musical interpretation of the eponymous light installation by artist Keith Sonnier (1941-2020) in Los Angeles.

The 400-foot work consists of flashing red neon and blue argon lighting sequences that evoke taillights streaming down the freeways. Los Angeles is a city that never sleeps and where the traffic never stops. It is truly a place where the car is king and dominates everything.

“Motordom” was created for wind ensemble in 2009, but then converted into a full orchestral work in 2019. It starts slowly and softly, but it soon picks up speed as it cruises down the boulevard. A recurring theme is a propulsive five-note motif that is repeated over and over in various disguises, a musical representation of pulsating strobe lights. An arsenal of percussion instruments (various cymbals, crotales, tubular bells, marimba, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, vibraphone) helps create a nervous staccato effect that captures the syncopated spirit of the modern, febrile metropolis. There is no traditional tune, no conventional melody. In “modern times,” all pre-industrial norms are suspended. People are uprooted and on the move. Everybody and everything is in transit. But it is not necessarily clear what people are pursuing and where the ride is headed. What’s the meaning of life? At times, the effect is shrill and painful, disharmonious and alienating. The jagged work ends, abruptly and unpredictably, in a loud crescendo. It almost feels like a crash. “Motordom” is a vivid and brilliant piece that dives deep into the ambivalence of modernity and the American psyche.

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata,” on the other hand, is a traditional work deeply rooted in meaningful storytelling. It is based on Alexandre Dumas’ romantic novel “La dame aux camélias” (“The Lady of the Camellias”), published in 1848 and subsequently adapted for the stage in 1852.

Attending one of the Paris performances, Verdi was immediately inspired and began to work on “La Traviata” (“The Fallen Woman”). The opera was first performed on March 6, 1853, in Venice, Italy. There are dozens of versions, translations, and movie adaptions of the story, all of which use different character names, but this is the basic narrative: Beautiful Violetta Valéry (as she is called in the opera) works as a concubine, doubtlessly a somewhat disreputable profession even though her customers include rich and famous aristocrats. At one of her expensive parties, young Alfredo Germont, who has long adored her, declares his undying love for her. She rejects him initially, but there is an innocence and purity in the uncorrupted provincial lad that touches her heart: “Ah, perhaps he is the one.” However, her health is frail as she suffers from “consumption” (tuberculosis).

In Act 2, Violetta has abandoned her former existence and she and Alfredo now happily live together in the countryside. “God has wiped out the past,” she sings, “he knows of my repentance.” One day, however, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, arrives and demands the end of the disreputable love affair because it threatens the marriage prospects of his daughter. Noble Violetta reluctantly agrees to the painful sacrifice for the sake of his family and writes Alfredo a farewell letter.

It is not until Act 3 that Alfredo learns the truth and rushes to her, but it too late. She has only a few more hours to live. Alfredo’s father finally realizes that the two truly loved each other from the bottom of their hearts and that she is an honorable woman after all. He is filled with remorse and embraces the former courtesan as his own daughter. The opera ends with young Violetta’s tragic, untimely death. Her final wish is for Alfredo to find a gentle maiden, marry her, and be happy. Love and death are closely related in this melancholy work. Beginning with the foreboding overture, an underlying suffering and sadness is consistently present.

The March 13 performance was, of course, not the complete version of Verdi’s opera. Instead, it was an abbreviated concert performance, sung entirely in Italian, with only the three main characters on stage, and with minimal acting. Soprano Laura Portune played the coveted title role of Violetta, Tenor Brandon Scott Russell was Alfredo, and Baritone Robert Kerr was Germont, Alfredo’s father. The rendition was a superb one.

As petite as Laura Portune is, her strong operatic voice and charismatic personality dominated the concert hall. With over sixty operatic roles and concert works under her belt, she is an extremely experienced soloist. Her coloratura virtuosity is phenomenal and unforgettable. It was clear that the complex role, which demands a broad range of emotions, was a natural fit for her.

Brandon Scott Russell also has a youthful, bright, stentorian voice. His Alfredo is not a shy, timid one. Instead, he is a self-assured man who knows what he wants.

Baritone Robert Kerr was an appropriate choice for Giorgio Germont, the unhappy father who initially rejects his son’s infatuation with Valetta as folly and a threat to his family’s honor. Unfortunately, the shortened concert rendition did not highlight the remarkable change of heart that he undergoes. Kerr’s voice is not quite as piercing, crisp, and lucid as that of Portune and Russell. It is softer, mellower, and more velvety and therefore probably better suited for supporting roles, but he too performed convincingly and admirably.

This concert review would be incomplete without mentioning the cameo appearance in Act 1 of the Delaware Community Chorus and its artistic director, Joshua Brodbeck. They have their own concert coming up when they will perform John Rutter’s “Requiem” at Powell United Methodist Church on May 15. You may check for details.

Under Maestro Jaime Morales-Matos’ exacting baton, the orchestra did a splendid job both with Jennifer Jolley’s piece and Giuseppe Verdi’s opera. The majority of players have performed under the music director for many years now, and the two sides know what to expect from each other. The musicians trust Morales-Matos’ judgment and guidance and make every effort to rise to the occasion. At the same time, they don’t view the vigorous conductor as a demi-god who can do no wrong. He happily accepts questions and suggestions. The Symphony has always been a collaborative effort, as it should be. The standing ovation at the end of the concert was richly deserved.

The Central Ohio Symphony gratefully acknowledges the support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the City of Delaware, and Ohio Wesleyan University. Many thanks are also due to the Symphony’s musicians, subscribers, ticket purchasers, donors, trustees, and volunteers.

Two more concerts are coming up to conclude the Symphony’s 43rd season. On April 30, Nancy Gamso will be the soloist in Michael Rene Torres’ clarinet concerto. Also on the program are Johannes Brahms’ “Tragic Overture” and his Symphony No. 1. On May 21, the Symphony will perform the “Concerto for Trumpet” by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez (with Pacho Flores as soloist) and Peter Boyer’s ambitious multimedia work “Ellis Island.”

In case you missed the March 13 concert or wish to hear it again, it was recorded in its entirety by OWU’s videographer Elaine Chun and can be found on the website of the Symphony,

By Thomas K. Wolber

Contributing columnist

Thomas K. Wolber, Ph.D., taught foreign languages and literatures at Ohio Wesleyan University for over 30 years. He is now retired. Wolber has an undergraduate degree in music from a German university, plays the piano, and is passionate about classical music. His email address is [email protected].

No posts to display