By Elsa Tranter
Photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
“An Oldie but a Goodie” would be a good subtitle for this opera. It is the quintessential ‘grand opera’, combining tuneful accessible music, poetic lyrics, a soulful story, chorus, ballet, and a romantic and tragic ending. When you add lead singers who look like they could be lovers (and who can act as well) success is guaranteed.
All that and more was available at San Francisco Opera’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”, now in its final performances at the War Memorial Opera House. Nicola Luisotti conducted—his last set of performances as Music Director of the opera company—with a splendid flourish and energy, from overture to final curtain. If only patrons wouldn’trush to be the first to applaud and therefore spoil the magic of the final notes of each and every act. In some productions the problem is mitigated by blacking out the stage before the curtain starts to descend—that should be standard practice and would go a long way to solving theproblem. But that’s a digression….
The story is a classic of love, loss and redemption: courtesan (read high-class prostitute) finds love with an upper class man; they run off to live the ‘pure’ life in the country; upper class father persuades her to give up her man for the sake of family honor, which she does (and goes back to being a courtesan); as she is dying of consumption and at death’s door she is redeemed for her noble act by the return of her man AND his father. Totally romantic!!
The cast was an international one, with three debuting artists in the major roles. First, and foremost, was the Romanian soprano, Aurelia Florian, as Violetta Valery. She follows in the footsteps of another gorgeous and glamorous Romanian soprano who has been on this stage, Angela Gheorghiu; Ms. Gheorghiu. hasn’t sung this role here (but could). Ms Florian has sung the role in many opera houses worldwide and made for a stunning and believable Violetta. Her singing and acting were very convincing from start to finish, and she had an excellent death on stage. She was matched, in singing, acting and looks, very well by the Alfredo Germont of Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan. Mr. Ayan has won acclaim for his portrayal of the charming but weak Alfredo at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (under the baton of Maestro Luisotti) and at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Their duets were the stuff of the best of romantic operas.
Rounding out the trio was Polish baritone Artur Ruciński as the father Giorgio Germont. His performance was the least convincing to me— he seemed too youthful and slight for the stern father and I thought his actingwas less well suited to the role—not commanding enough. A small quibble. The important thing is that his voice was up to the task and by the final, reconciliation scene among the three leading characters, his stiffness was long forgotten and the tragedy ended in a satisfying fashion.
The smaller roles were all done in characteristically good San Francisco manner: Renee Rapier as Flora, Amitai Pati as Gastone, Philip Skinner as Baron Douphol, Anthony Reed as Doctor Grenvil, Andrew Manea as the Marquis d’Obigny and Amina Edris as Annina. All of them are present or past San Francisco Opera Center Adler Fellows. This program has produced many of the leading performers of the current opera world; some of those on stage now may have major careers ahead of them as well.
Finally, there was a trio of Flamenco dancers, Lorena Feijoo a crossover from the San Francisco Ballet, Blanche Hampton and Bryan Ketron. The San Francisco Opera Chorus did their usual excellent work in their two crowd scenes.
The production is an old one, done initially by the world-famous British producer John Copley in 1987 and used six times previously between then and now. It has aged extremely well. The stage was shrunk by means of side and back walls, to lend a more intimate appearance to the smaller scenes; for the large scenes with chorus and dancers, the performers spilled out at the sides. It was all very effective. In Act I the walls featured reproductions of panels by French Rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard. Marie Duplessis, the real-life inspiration for Violetta Valery, was an avid art collector, particularly of works by Fragonard and Watteau. The costumes were also classics, of the period (it was set in 1860), and added to the overall timelessness of the story without looking faded and without attempting to update it to modern times. After all, in these days of antibiotics, not so many people, rich or poor, die of consumption.
I think “La Traviata” is an excellent ‘starter’ opera; it provides all the checkpoints required for a satisfying evening of music and theater. Two performances left: October 14 and 17, both at 7:30pm.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.