What a difference a Diva makes. Lyric Opera’s season-opening performances of Verdi’s “La traviata” were not particularly memorable, save for their being the last that Lyric’s music director emeritus Bruno Bartoletti conducted for the company that he had led for so many decades. But revive the production with a new trio of lead singers headed up by superstar soprano Renée Fleming, and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Fleming has wisely waited to take on Violetta, a role that not only demands extraordinary vocal flexibility but full dramatic weight as well. One is usually sacrificed in favor of the other, but not with Fleming. Not since Beverly Sills has a soprano so looked and sounded this part with such seeming ease. Little wonder that rabid fans were lining up just to leave her notes of adulation on Lyric Opera cocktail napkins, of all things. These performances have long been sold out, but there are turnbacks and there were no-shows at last Saturday’s opening, so patience and persistence should be rewarded. Meanwhile, a DVD “traviata” performance has just been released on Decca that brilliantly captures Fleming soaring in this signature role (it also features Chicago baritone Philip Kraus—also in this production—as the jealous baron). Thankfully, though Lyric could have depended on Fleming’s reputation alone and stacked the rest of the cast with Ryan Center singers as it did with its Diva AWOL “boheme,” frequent Fleming collaborator Thomas Hampson was on hand to make a gregarious Germont and Wilmette tenor Matthew Polenzani makes an impetuous Alfredo, both singing and acting such a storm that the familiar tragedy takes on new life. Bring the hankies. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, (312)332-2244. This production is now closed.