Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Based on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils
San Francisco Opera
June 13-July 5, 2009
Directed and designed by Marta Domingo
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valéry)
photo by Cory Weaver
It was something of a hail and farewell at San Francisco Opera’s summer production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Superstar soprano Anna Netrebko made a welcome return to the house where she made her U.S. debut in 1995. The former Merola Opera program trainee has gone on to a stellar international career and the San Francisco audience welcomed her back in the role of the consumptive courtesan who gives up everything – including love – for love with shouts of “Brava” and open arms. Her recent foray into motherhood has diminished neither the singer’s beauty nor voice. And it was goodbye (but not forever, he’ll be back to conduct Wagner’s “Ring”) to Maestro Donald Runnicles, leading his final score as principal conductor and music director after a distinguished 17 year tenure.
As if this were not emotion enough, the trials and tribulations of Violetta Valery, who abandons a life of aimless pleasure to follow her heart and then is persuaded to leave her lover for the good of his family tears at the heartstrings as it has ever since Alexandre Dumas fils first penned it as “La Dame Aux Camellias” (fondly known on this side of the pond as “Camille”). Verdi’s music, a product of his fertile “middle period” which also produced “Il Trovatore” and “Rigoletto,” is as emotional as the plot and audiences have been eating it up for more than 150 years.
This particular production, which comes by way of Los Angeles Opera, is a little bit wrong-headed however. Instead of setting it in the period in which it was written (a situation that shocked audiences of the day), director and production designer Marta Domingo (yes, the wife of that Domingo) has updated it to the Jazz Age, equating the courtesans of the Belle Epoque with the rebellious flappers of the Roaring Twenties. While making for some attractive stage pictures, it doesn’t quite work. The costumes are lovely as are some of the sets, particularly the lovers’ country retreat, all autumnal glory (with Netrebko in a russet robe to match). Having Violetta make her party entrance in Act One in a luxury touring car also was an inspired touch. But, as the supposedly inebriated guests depart, they are as stiff and stylized as the spectators in “My Fair Lady’s” Ascot Gavotte. The Act Two ballet, always a silly thing involving gypsy fortunetellers and matadors, was inexplicably relocated to Egypt with dancer Jekyns Pelaez setting out to fight the bulls bare-chested in cloth-of-gold harem pants. The final death scene is played out on a bare stage save for a large bed, surrounded by lamps which are supposed to be stars. Snow is falling. But we are inside a house. Go figure.
Back to the music. Runnicles conducted with his usual aplomb and Ian Robertson’s chorus of flappers and dilettante gentlemen sang beautifully. While Netrebko made a gorgeous Violetta, both physically and vocally, tenor Charles Castronovo sounded thin and was stiff and weak as the young man who loves her. He truly came alive in the gambling hall when he denounced his supposedly faithless mistress, but only briefly.
The preceding scene between Violetta and Germont pere is one of Verdi’s famous “father-daughter” duets (others are in “Rigoletto,” “Aida” and “Ernani”). Whole courses have been given on these; psychological studies on Verdi’s fixation on the father-daughter relationship after his own little girls died in childhood. Whatever the inspiration, this one is the linchpin of this opera. Reliable tenor Dwayne Croft sang a beautiful Germont, the young Alfredo’s father come to convince the courtesan to release his son. But he was so wooden and unyielding that, no matter how well he sang, you had to hate the guy. Like father, like son?