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Lyric Opera of Chicago starts its 53rd season

Firing a well-known soprano and averting a last-minute strike threat didn't hamper Lyric Opera of Chicago from getting its 53rd season off to a promising start.

In keeping with the company's recent policy of beginning the season with tried-and-true works, Lyric's 2007-08 season opener Saturday night was a revival of Verdi's "La Traviata." It was also a personal triumph for American soprano Elizabeth Futral, who used her vocal and acting skills to shine some new light into that most familiar of melodic tragedies.

"Traviata" is performed so frequently that it is sometimes easy to forget how difficult it is - at least for the lead soprano. But, in truth, the role of the doomed Violetta Valery demands both the power of a dramatic soprano and - especially in Act I - the agility of a coloratura. Those two qualities do not often reside in the same singer.

But Futral proved she had both. She even made it look easy.

Unlike the typical dramatic soprano who may have to stretch to handle Act I's "Sempre libera," Futral is a natural coloratura who is only now coming down into dramatic roles. She handled that killer aria so confidently that she began it with her back turned toward the audience. And that was only moments after she had sung the affecting "Ah! fors'e lui" at full power while reclining on a divan.

The North Carolina-born and Louisiana-reared Futral is a graduate of Lyric's Ryan Opera Center, where strong emphasis is placed on acting, and her dramatic ability was on display on opening night. Undoubtedly helped by the fact that she is young enough, beautiful enough and slender enough to look the part of Violetta, Futral created a believable illusion of the dying consumptive courtesan - right down to the sudden bursts of febrile energy typical of tuberculosis. That is something many vocally gifted sopranos have been unable to do.

Indeed, since Lyric's second production of the season, opening Monday night, is to be the similarly plotted "La Boheme," many in the audience were probably looking forward to a duel of the tubercular Parisiennes. Such a showdown became less likely, though, when Lyric management on Friday fired "Boheme's" glamorous Mimi, Angela Gheorghiu, and replaced her with understudy Elaine Alvarez, who will be making her Lyric debut.

Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, playing Violetta's lover, Alfredo Germont, was making his Lyric debut and was vocally effective in a role he has previously done in Vienna and Los Angeles. His voice seemed a bit muted at moments early in Act I, but he soon warmed up.

Calleja is not Futral's equal dramatically, but he is a large man, and his size, combined with his aura of robust health, enhanced the illusion of frailty she was creating on stage. And Calleja was very effective in his rivalry and angry confrontations with Baron Douphol (American baritone Philip Kraus).

The third member in "Traviata's" central tragedy, the elder Germont, was sung by American baritone Mark Delavan, who brought imposing physical presence to the role and was a believable father for Calleja. His large voice, though, seemed veiled - almost as if he had been singing in French rather than the more open Italian. But because Delavan was not as loud as some Germonts, Futral was able to pull off the trick of doing much of her Act II duet with him ("Dite alla giovine") very softly, and thus increasing its dramatic power.

The Lyric will present five more performances of "Traviata" with the current cast, ending Oct. 15. Six more performances will be offered in January, with Renee Fleming as Violetta, Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, and Thomas Hampson as the elder Germont.

The autumn performances of "Traviata" are the last operas at Lyric under the baton of artistic director emeritus Bruno Bartoletti, who is returning to his native Florence. Bartoletti has been conducting at Lyric since 1956 and began a 24-year tenure as sole artistic director in 1964.

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