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OPERA REVIEW : Opera Pacific Triumphs in Second ‘La Traviata’

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Saturday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Opera Pacific gave the first performance of its latest, reasonably lavish production of “La Traviata.” It wasn’t an altogether happy experience.

The Violetta, Tiziana Fabbricini, confirmed her international reputation for being controversial, to say the least. Her two leading men were strong, but the secondhand staging scheme tended to sag, and the music-making under Steven Mercurio seemed nervous at best, mechanical at worst.

It wasn’t much like that at the second performance, Sunday afternoon. What a difference a day can make. What a difference a new pair of principals can make. What a difference another run-through can make.

The new heroine, much applauded by the capacity audience, was Cristina Gallardo-Domas, a petite, wide-eyed soprano from Chile. She had inherited the assignment when the management released the originally scheduled Gwynne Geyer so that she “could attend to important family matters.”

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Gallardo-Domas does not command the most mellifluous sound in Western civilization. Her tone--basically bright and sometimes even brilliant--tends to get a bit shrill when she reaches for the zonking climaxes. She may not float the most limpid pianissimo this side of Zinka Milanov. Though obviously intelligent, she is an actress who likes to strike poses (where Fabbricini concentrated on introspective detail, Gallardo-Domas focused on conventional extroversion).

Never mind. This prima donna delivers the goods. Generously.

She commands enough vocal power to cut through the thickest ensembles with laughing ease. She gauges the passionate outbursts cannily, yet musters sufficient agility to make the florid passages both accurate and feverish. She apparently fears few range extremes and savors the impact of a poignant legato (a minor technical glitch at the cadence of “Addio del passato” notwithstanding).

Her Violetta takes instant command of the stage, musically and dramatically, and never lets go. Remember the name. Cristina Gallardo-Domas.

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She found a sympathetic partner in Vladimir Grishko, a Ukrainian from Shevchenko who made his local debut as an ardent, handsome and somewhat reticent Alfredo. He sustained a compelling aura of romantic innocence and caressed the gentle passages with exquisite head tones reminiscent of Smirnov (the singer, not the vodka). Even though his slender tenor became a bit pinched under pressure, he found ample thrust for the agitated cabaletta, “O mio rimorso.”

Haijing Fu returned as Giorgio Germont, sounding even more resonant and more warmly expressive than he had the night before. If there is another baritone today who can sing “Di Provenza” with comparable urgency, poise and dynamic sensitivity, I’d like to know who it is.

Obviously inspired by his principals, Mercurio enforced unexpected degrees of passion and vitality in the pit. He also slowed down for expansive sentiment when the indulgence was warranted. It was illuminating.

* “La Traviata,” presented by Opera Pacific, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Remaining performances: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. (Gallardo-Domas sings Friday and Sunday.) $18-$85; (714) 556-2787.

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