Review: ‘La Traviata’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

(Emma Bushnell)

(Rating: ***)

(“La Traviata” plays at the War Memorial Opera House on the following dates: 6/20/14, 6/25/14, 6/29/14, 07/05/14, 07/08/14, 07/11/14 and 07/13/14.)

San Francisco Opera’s revival of “La Traviata” is at its best in quieter, more contemplative moments, when the claustrophobic crowds have blown away and soprano Nicole Cabell shines as a delightfully expressive actress who offers a nuanced portrayal of Violetta. Her ACT IV aria, “Addio del passsato”, was a brief moment of truly moving theatre.

Otherwise, however this sixth mounting of John Copley’s 1987 production with languid direction by Laurie Feldman was a disservice to the singers. For example, in more boisterous scenes, when competing with Nicola Luisotti’s idiosyncratically led orchestra, Violetta’s voice had to struggle to be heard.

Tenor Stephen Costello plays Violetta’s ardent, if shortsighted, lover, Alfredo, sympathetically well. It is often easy to dismiss Alfredo as a fool who accomplishes little more than the ruin of a woman’s life and bringing shame to his family over the course of the three hour production, but Costello’s energetic stage presence and clear, expressive voice draws the audience to his character. This is particularly gratifying, as Violetta’s loss of love is felt that much more keenly when the lover is someone to root for as well.

Alfredo’s imperious father, a character who is obviously bad news from his bassoon-heralded entrance, is played serviceably by Vladimir Stoyanov. Stoyanov’s powerful voice befits the overbearing patriarch, yet he is a relatively weak actor whose staid presence undermines the emotional punch of Violetta’s decision to leave Alfredo for his own good.

Nicole Cabell as Violetta in "La Traviata". Photo Credit: Corey Weaver/San Francisco Opera.
Nicole Cabell as Violetta in “La Traviata”. Photo Credit: Corey Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

If a piece of theater manages to endure over a century and a half, it must be good. Verdi’s classic tragedy about consumptive courtesan Violetta is packed with gorgeously moving music, lovers torn asunder, parties, and a duel, topped off with a tragic death. It is easy to see why this opera has endured as well as it has — superb score aside, the themes of love lost and early illness and death are, sadly, quite timeless. Taking this story from eighteenth century Paris and making it relevant to a modern audience should not be as difficult as the SF Opera is making it out to be. Unfortunately, one danger when mounting a warhorse like La Traviata is that it can feel gratuitous. The company has seemingly fallen into the trap of staging a classic without being able to answer the question of why.

With an opera as objectively excellent as La Traviata, even a tired production is enjoyable to watch. But I do wish the SF Opera had not merely rested on the laurels of of a long-dead composer and put some creative effort into bringing the audience a production filled with enough passion to bring Violetta’s story properly to life.

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“La Traviata”, by Giuseppe Verdi at the San Francisco Opera through July 13. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Sung in Italian with English supertitles. Conductors: Nicola Luisotti (Jun 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29) and Guiseppe Finzi (Jul 5, 8, 11, 13). Set Design: John Conklin. Custome Design: David Walker.

Violetta Valéry: Nicole Cabell (Jun 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29)/Ailyn Pérez (Jul 5, 8, 11, 13). Alfredo Germont: Saimir Pirgu (Jun 11, 14, 25, 29)/Stephen Costello (Jun 17, 20 & Jul 5, 8, 11, 13). Giorgio Germont: Vladimir Stoyanov (Jun 11, 14, 17, 20, 25, 29)/Quinn Kelsey (Jul 5, 8, 11, 13). Flora Bervoix: Zanda Svede. Gastone: Daniel Montenegro. Baron Duophol: Dale Travis. Marquis D’Obigny: Hadleigh Adams. Doctor Grenvil: Andrew Craig Brown. Annina: Erin Johnson. Giuseppe: Christopher Jackson. Flora’s Servant: Torlef Borsting. Messenger: Bojan Knezevic.


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