Verdi: La traviata

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 14 June 20143.5 stars

Cabell Pirgu

I start this review with a confession: La traviata has been my favorite opera since the first time I heard it. Over the years, I learned all the parts by heart, I have sang “E' strano... sempre libera” for my students when I taught them about the Italian Risorgimento, and I must have watched all the video productions available on youtube. I'm not alone of course –  this is one of the most popular Verdian masterpieces, and many of his arias became part of the national-popular repertoire, both in Verdi's native Italy as well as worldwide. It is of no surprise, then, that I was overjoyed upon hearing that the San Francisco Opera was planning on presenting this opera in the classic production created by John Copley, directed in this revival by Laurie Feldman.

After a soulful, emotional rendition of the prelude by the SF Orchestra, the curtains opened to show the opulent interior of Violetta's house. The sets designed by John Conklin conferred the stage a three-dimensional quality which made the space created by the sets look wide and tall. Elaborate flowery curtains and baroque paintings adorned the walls, creating an opulently claustrophobic atmosphere which characterized not only Violetta's house but also that of Flora's in act III. The pomposity of the first act starkly contrasted the space portrayed in the final scene: Violetta's room, now devoid of ball gowns, paintings and any sign of material wealth, appeared vast and desolate. Violetta's bed was completely swallowed by the green-grey walls and the pale yellow light passing through the shades. In its very traditional elements, this production serves the opera well, and Feldman's direction in this revival contributed to the harmony between the sets and its inhabitants. The chorus members, during the ballroom scenes in Acts I and III, were beautifully choreographed, and the costumes by David Walker, big and sumptuous, floated beautifully as the performers interacted on stage.

This SF Opera's Traviata struck me as being more about nuances rather than vocal power. This is because of Nicola Luisotti’s beautiful work on details and his orchestra, and because of the vocal qualities (and also, vocal shortcomings) of the protagonists. Nicole Cabell portrayed a lively, spirited Violetta, subtly consumed by merciless family politics, by mysoginist societal norms, and by her own disease. Because of the qualities of her timbre – dark and thick but somewhat weak when paired to a big-sounding orchestra – Cabell was frequently overpowered, and it was almost impossible to hear her lines during some crucial pianissimo parts. Despite the lack of balance between the orchestra and her delivery, I found elements of precision and grace in her performance –  even in the most difficult pieces, as the coloratura lines in “Sempre libera”. Because of her voice’s less-than-powerful timbre, it was in the less grandiose sections of the opera that she shone. In her duet with Germont, she was profoundly moving; and her “Addio del passato” was the highlight of the whole opera: Cabell delivered Violetta's desperate addio to her life in the most touching and intense fashion.

FlamencoSaimir Pirgu's interpretation of Alfredo was not very charismatic or nuanced. Pirgu's timbre has a very bright and youthful quality, which makes him suited for such a role – his impetuousness is particularly apt in the first act, in which Alfredo cannot contain himself and confesses his love for a woman to whom he has barely talked; and his voice is also a good match with that of Cabell, from the point of view of their respective timbres. Yet, he lacked some elegance, especially in his crescendos and diminuendos, during which he would move suddenly from piano to forte or vice versa, without dynamic shades in between. Also, his acting was somewhat stiff – and this this was true not only of Pirgu, but of Cabell and Vladimir Stoyanov (Giorgio Germont) as well. This is an observation that I would apply to the whole cast: the protagonists' physical interpretation – and Feldman's directing –  could have been more emphatic and warm in order to better convey the powerful drama of La traviata not only through their voices but also in their interaction on stage.

Vladimir Stoyanov as Giorgio Germont started off somewhat vocally feeble. Yet as he warmed up, his acting strengthened and, overall, he successfully portrayed Alfredo's ruthless and eventually regretful father. “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” was beautifully rendered, conveying parental love, melancholy and severity at the same time.

As for the comprimario roles, Erin Johnson portrayed an affectionate Annina, with her resonant and warm timbre. Dale Travis, as Baron Douphol, delivered his lines with dramatic intensity, though it was difficult to hear him most of the times. Zanda Svede gave life to a convincing Flora, conferring her character both tenderness and exuberance. The gipsy dance in act III was wonderfully choreographed by Bay Area flamenco powerhouse Yaelisa. Thanks to the members of the chorus' for their expressive acting and also to the spirited dance performance by the three dance soloists – Fanny Ara, Devon LaRussa and Timo Nuñes –, the initial scene during Flora's party was one of the highlights of the performance.

Cabell Pirgu 1The chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, was strangely less audible than usual. This might have been an interpretive choice, and I have to say that I really enjoyed the subtlety of their interpretation. This was particularly true in the moments in which they would express concern for Violetta in act I, as she feels unwell for the first time in the opera in front of her friends, and during the magnificent, haunting scene in act III when they express solidarity to the woman after Alfredo's offense.

Finally, Luisotti's reading of the score was both intensely dramatic and graceful. There were some audible mistakes in the string section, and yet their performance – and that of the whole orchestra – was overall nuanced and intense. I truly enjoyed his choice of the tempi in some specific scenes – something that pleasantly struck me as unexpected. It seemed to me like Luisotti was aiming to give more space in the instrumental fabric for the changes in Violetta's behavior and health, which are reflected in her vocal lines. He achieved that by lingering on the pauses in the score and by some variations in the tempi. This was especially evident in “Parigi, o cara”: as Pirgu delivered his lines with warmth and vigour, the orchestra supported him with the same vivacity and waltz-like cheerfulness; but as a dying Violetta responded to his lines, the orchestra subtly slowed down, almost mimicking Violetta's difficulty (both physical and psychological) by conveying the same positivity about the future that Alfredo was describing to her. Such nuances in Luisotti's reading of the score made this Traviata memorable for this particular member of the audience – and I look forward to hearing different singers' performances during this run of La traviata at the War Memorial Opera House.

By Marina Romani

Photos credits: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera