At 7:25 p.m. Saturday, the lights flickered outside Tucson Music Hall and a few of the couple hundred people lined up at the box office and security checkpoints got a little nervous.
Five minutes until curtain for Arizona Opera's production of "La Traviata" featuring Scottsdale native Vanessa Vasquez in the lead role of Violetta Valéry.
One guy in the will call line reassured a woman next to him that there was no way they would start without them.
Welcome to downtown Tucson on the opening weekend of gem show 2019, as audiences for a number of downtown shows Saturday night including We Three Banjos across the courtyard at Leo Rich Theatre and the Luche Libre Wrestling show at Rialto Theatre over on Congress Street competed for parking.
With the demolition last month of Hotel Arizona's garage next to Music Hall, and road construction gobbling up a handful of metered street spots, many of us parked blocks away from the action.
But once the audience filtered into Music Hall and did the "excuse me, pardon me" dance to get to their seats, the hassle to get here became a minor irritant erased when the curtain rose on Arizona Opera's wonderful, towering stage.
Verdi's tragic drama, part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, opened the company's Main Stage series at Music Hall, and what an opening it was. By all accounts from the box office, very few seats were vacant. Arizona Opera President and General Director Joseph Specter told the audience that some in Saturday's crowd had had tickets for Sunday, but changed when they realized they would miss the Super Bowl.
Frankly, the Super Bowl with the LA Rams and, yawn, the New England Patriots, probably had less to do with those patrons decisions than the thought of seeing Vasquez.
The soprano, making her Arizona and role debuts in the production, was simply stunning. She slipped into Violetta's skin and transported us to 19th century Paris and that carefree world of wild parties and youthful indiscretions that implodes into heartbreak and tragedy.
"La Traviata" is the story of Violetta, a fated courtesan who finds love with Alfredo, a member of the bourgeois who has long loved her from afar. But the couple's love is doomed by Alfredo's father and Violetta's illness.
From her opening aria Vasquez had us with her stunningly beautiful lyric soprano that tiptoed into the dramatic coloratura when she sang the signature aria "Sempre Libera." She let those high notes at the end soar so high and so sweet that we held our breath wondering just how high and long she could go. It was breath-taking.
In the emotionally-charged duet "Amami Alfredo "where Violetta leaves Alfredo (sung admirably by tenor Daniel Montenegro), Vasquez showcased the full range of her beautiful timbre, going from impossibly high as she pleaded her love to soft and quiet as she stuffs a note she has written to him in his hand.
Vasquez is at the infancy of her career, which took off when she won the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. From what she showed us Saturday night, Violetta could become one of her signature roles.
Here are a couple other things we loved about "La Traviata":
• Baritone Daniel Sutin in the role of Alfredo's father Germont. Sutin, who sings with a wonderfully rich and brooding baritone and his Germont was sympathetic even when he was being a meanie and insisting that Violetta break off relations with his son because it looked bad for the family. When he returns to make amends for what he's done and to admonish his son for treating Violetta like a prostitute, we quietly cheered him and forgave him for being such a jerk.
• The Arizona Opera chorus, which was big and bold and played such an important role as the party goers. They were especially fun singing along with Montenegro in the Act 1 drinking song "Libiamo ne' lieti calici."
• The orchestra under the baton of Joseph Rescigno brought Verdi's wonderful contrasting harmonies to life.