Cher Public

As time goes on, I realize just what you mean to me

There is a slight chill in the air during the final minutes of La Traviata. Onstage stand a huddled group of people, brought together by death, all pretense forgotten as they offer themselves selflessly to one another. All the barriers that divided them a few weeks prior—guilt over a life of disrepute, a thirst for honor and respectability, the drive to defend one’s good name—have melted away. But they are too late. 

Tragically, we realize, it is only in Violetta’s sickness that she, Alfredo, and Giorgio find the reconciliation that they could have had in good health. However the regrets of those on stage might affect us, though, a great production also leaves us wondering whether the opera is in some measure about us.

Will we be able to tear down the artificial expectations that divide us from those we might love before it is too late? SF Opera’s current rendering of Verdi’s masterwork, featuring Aurelia Florian as Violetta, Atalla Ayan as Alfredo and Arture Rucinski as Giorgio, is one of those great productions.

The start of my Sunday matinee performance was inauspicious. There is something about the soft, ethereal openings of the preludes to Traviata (and Aida, I recall from last season) that gets San Francisco Opera-goers to discover respiratory illnesses they never knew they had.

Difficult though it was to focus on the music during the prelude, I’m happy to report that—at least to my knowledge—the entirety of the audience TB ward outlasted Violetta. The noise was a great injustice to the performers, since the prelude showed off Nicola Luisotti’s refined sense of natural pacing and the SF Opera Orchestra’s deep connection with this repertoire.

The reaching, grasping, violin fragments of the opening got just the right amount of space, and Verdi’s signature orchestral challenge—in which he gives different parts of the orchestra such divergent roles that they must pretend not to hear each other until they meet, as if by chance, at the end of the phrase—was negotiated with ease. Warm, organic melody lines swelled in the violas and cellos as ribbons of quick staccato accompaniment in the upper strings showed off Luisotti’s pinpoint control.

The orchestra continued to play at the highest level that I’ve heard from them for the rest of the performance. Soloistic details—from the weeping “white-toned” clarinets as Violetta pens her farewell letter to Alfredo to the “Di quell’amor” violin solos in the final act—were lovingly performed.

In the prolonged orchestral introduction to Act 3, in which Verdi draws together passionate love and impending death in a clear musical nod to Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the orchestra’s phrasing was intimate and imaginative, hopeful yet resigned—a perfect musical mirror of the figure wasting away upon the bed.

That figure was expertly played by the Romanian soprano Florian in her SF Opera debut. In a recent interview, Luisotti expressed his agreement with the cliché that the role of Violetta is so wide-ranging as to make it almost unsingable by a single person. Traviata’s three acts, so the conventional wisdom goes, require three different sopranos—coloratura, lyric, and dramatic.

It is almost inevitable that a singer playing Violetta will inhabit these three personalities with differing degrees of comfort. Indeed I found Florian to be more at home in the first and last acts than the second. But her performance for the entire opera existed on a spectrum from good to great.

In Act 1, she cultivated a confident, coquettish persona, only to shatter it in a “Sempre libera” whose surface-level self-assuredness grew increasingly frantic, nearly to hysteria. Dramatically it was a perfect encapsulation of Violetta’s situation—that of a regretful person whose long-term self-deception has led her to a breaking point.

Her vocal ornamentation on the aria was taut and energetic, her tone flute-like, and her pacing frenetic and wild.

Any gravity that Florian might have lost in the second act through her lighter tone she more than made up for with committed acting. Her desperate protestations against Giorgio’s demand that she abandon Alfredo gave way seamlessly to resignation and then clear-eyed nobility.

Florian’s wide-ranging stage persona, vocal mastery, and sense of tragic pacing all culminated in the final act. As she lay dying, her voice became straighter and more sincere to match the simplicity of Verdi’s orchestration.

Each breath of hope—the reading of Alfredo’s letter, his arrival, his promises that they would leave Paris together—worked like an amphetamine shot on her withering body.

“Parigi, o cara noi lasceremo” demonstrated an impressive range of affect and tone: as Alfredo desperately tried to breathe life back into her, her wispy voice rose to show flashes of the courtesan who had held forth so confidently in the first act. Even as she drained of energy, Florian managed to maintain her character’s tragic nobility to the last.

The Brazilian tenor Ayan proved a worthy counterpart in the role of Alfredo. His warm, cello-like tone was delivered with a deep sense of dynamic control which made each of Alfredo’s many moments of decision seem monumental and inevitable.

Clearly more comfortable in the lower reaches of the tenor range, he was at his strongest in the opening of Act 2, as Alfredo prematurely celebrates his life of bucolic bliss. Moments that called for forceful delivery in the high vocal range, however, were somewhat less effective.

One Act 2 high C in particular came out thin. Dramatically, Ayan was a relatable hero—a blend of boyish naiveté, easily punctured ego, and determination.

There is something rather poetic in the fact that despite their irrepressible longing for one another, Florian and Ayan were musically at their best alone. In fact, perhaps the only eyebrow-raising musical moments of the opera came in Verdi’s infamous unaccompanied duet cadenzas.

The difficulty of tuning these moments, particularly in “Un dì felice” and “Parigi,” where Alfredo sings a melody line with Violetta adding the accompaniment up an octave, was obvious. In “Un dì felice,” Ayan’s tendency to run sharp in higher-range melodic lines created a wedge effect against Florian’s slight undershooting of her accompaniment.

And in “Parigi,” Ayan ran so high at moments that he had to self-correct by turning his ascending half-step phrase endings into essentially the same pitch. These cadenzas, which happily constitute only about a minute (though a poignant minute) of the music, were the only times during the opera when I wished I could push the fast-forward button.

Much more effective—and right on the mark intonationally—was the duet singing between Giorgio (Rucinski) and Florian. Brilliantly cast for the role, the Polish baritone delivered a strikingly direct, even brassy sound.

From an acting perspective, Giorgio is a demanding role—a hard but deeply feeling man who progresses painfully from honor-bound cruelty to sympathetic resoluteness to deep regret. Giorgio is also a difficult character for twenty-first century audiences to grapple with.

Verdi treats the old man’s desperation to preserve his family’s good name with the same level of musical sympathy that he accords to Violetta in her desperation to hold on to Alfredo. Perhaps for Verdi’s nineteenth century Italian audiences, this would have seemed a dilemma between two evenly matched alternatives—honor and love.

It is far more of a challenge for audiences living less honor-bound twenty-first century lives to sympathize with Giorgio’s plight. And likewise, it is challenging for twenty-first century singers to inhabit the character with the level of ardor that Verdi wrote.

Rucinski accomplished this masterfully, suppressing his more humane instincts as he held firm in the second act, and softening his tone in the final act as he begged Violetta’s forgiveness.

The ensemble cast, which in Traviata includes several named supporting roles, provided a good opportunity for SF Opera to show off several of its young artist Adler Fellows.

Particularly notable were first year Adler Fellow Amitai Pati, who turned in an energetic performance as Alfredo’s viscount friend Gastone, and Amina Edris, who contributed significantly to the tragic resignation of the third act as Violetta’s dutiful but wise servant Annina.

Chorus scenes, per usual at SF Opera, were well put-together. Particularly strong was the offstage chorus depicting a Mardi Gras festival outside Violetta’s window in the final act. The chorus’ crisp diction provided a stark foil to the tragedy unfolding onstage.

I sometimes find stage direction wanting in SF Opera performances: the recent production of Turandot, for instance, featured rather a lot of aimless pacing about the stage. In this Traviata, however, every aspect of Shawna Lucey’s staging was painstakingly thought out.

In the ensemble scenes, even the fourth or fifth most important thing happening onstage at any given time had just as much purpose and commitment behind it as the first. When the cheeky expression on the face of a supporting actor as he closes the doors to leave Alfredo and Violetta to their canoodling is memorable, that’s a sign of a well-directed production.

As far as the production itself, SF Opera opted for a conservative approach, bringing back its 1987 production of La Traviata and its director, John Copley, as producer. In an opera that needs no updating, the classic backdrop of sumptuous Parisian townhomes, lavish stone-walled country villas, and luxurious dinner attire fit perfectly.

In all, Traviata is, along with Madama Butterfly, one of the strongest productions of the last two seasons at SF Opera. When it comes to casting, directing, and orchestral playing, SF Opera is at its best on the classic Italian repertoire, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

A deeply felt production that lays bare the timeless immediacy of Verdi’s greatest opera, La Traviata is highly recommended.

Photos: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

  • almavivante

    “In an opera that needs no updating, the classic backdrop of sumptuous Parisian town homes, lavish stone-walled country villas, and luxurious dinner attire fit perfectly.”

    Words from my own heart. Rather amazed to read such anti-regie sentiments on this site.

    • La Cieca

      Enjoy jerking off while looking at the photos of velvet drapes.

      • fletcher

        & remember to put a post-it over your webcam!

    • Porgy Amor

      I did not read that as anti-Regie, exactly. The critical objective is to decide how well whatever has been done, is done. I have mentioned several times over the years that the extremely traditional Cavani production of La Scala (when filmed with Fabbricini, Alagna, and Coni) was as well acted and directed a Traviata as I have ever seen, if hardly the best sung. I cannot speak for how it held up in advanced revivals with Gheorghiu or Trebs, but with its original director, it made a convincing case that the traditional chandeliers-and-hoop-skirts treatment could still frame great drama. Others may say the same for Peter Hall’s (1987 Glyndebourne). The late Mr. Innaurato wrote approvingly and well of both of these in the Met Guide.

      So, I would actually agree with Mr. Masko (always a must-read) that it does not need updating. But it does often get it, and when I am seeing Carsen’s, Decker’s, or Konwitschny’s, updates all, the job is to say how well it works. One of those is another favorite of mine, and the others are worth seeing.

  • Camille

    So utterly shocking to hear that ancient canard about Violetta being the three faces of Eve of vocal production — being battered about yet these days, and even by Luisotti! Look at the freaking score, people! It’s just essential Verdian soprano, just like the rest of her sorelle. Eek!!!!

    What section of Symphonie Fantastique would you be alluding to, Mr Masko, if you will? Most interesting reference.

    As it happens, I saw Mr Ayan’s Alfredo debut here at the Met, and on his opening night he had no trouble, none, with the C, unwritten as it is•--and where might the other Cs be in that act? Frankly, I’m stumped. Mr Rucinski was in ..what? Oh it was Sharpless in Butterfly here at the Met, and I thought him very fine in that role. Look forward to hearing him again.

    I will be on the watch for Miss Florian as she sounds lovely and interesting. Better she didn’t force in act two in any event.

    You paint us a very apt portrait of the production and it sounds like one I’d have dearly loved to seen. Oh, come to think of it, I believe it was Luisotti who conducted that Traviata the night of Mr Ayan’s debut, haha! and I was very impressed with a number of small things he did, so, happily enough--at least I’ve seen about one half of the musical portion of this Traviata!

    Keep on informing us of the Left Coast opera scene, always a different experience from here--I don’t know how to explain, but it is so—in myriad small ways.

    • fletcher

      Reminds me of this old thread:

      Embarrassed to say I’d never thought of the Berlioz reference either -- I’m assuming it’s right in the opening bars of the first movement, the delicate, wandering melody in the strings, before he adds the juice later. Verdi of course got a lot of tricks from Berlioz, so it makes sense.

      • Camille

        You know; fletcher caro, I’ve got the Boulez recording of the Symphonie home at the moment and I shall
        listen carefully to it to see what you mean.

        Boulez keeps the cray-cray from coming out full force on it, a rather business-like approach. Dutoit’s approach, where he charges like an enraged bull is my fave.

        Love Berlioz, and YES, everyone and their uncle got hints and tips and advices from Hector. Where would we be without him?

      • John

        Yes -- the opening bars of the Berlioz were exactly what I was referring to! Verdi, I believe, alludes to it not only in harmony and musical gestures but orchestrationally as well.

      • Camille

        Ah……..would either of you two good fellows care to illustrate for this tragically dense old person which measures you refer to? I must have listened twenty times to the opening and hear only the vaguest allusion to the preludio in the third act. Truly, I am not trying to be intransigent, it’s just arteriosclerosis run amuck, I imagine….

        Merci, mes confrères!!

        • fletcher

          Camille, chère, I think it’s more the opening bars of both Traviata Act 1 and 3, the C minor theme for violins, that recalls the opening theme of Rêveries -- Passions, bars 3-16, also in C minor, and also in the high strings (or at least without double basses until bar 12 or so). It’s more of an interesting similarity to my ears than a “clear musical nod” but there you go.

          • Camille

            Thank you for the specific indications, and will do my best to try and follow but I’m at a loss for a score to the Symphonie so for now I’ll take your word for it, until I may download or espy one. The key here being “interesting similarity”, I’m thinking?

            A lot of these ‘interesting similarities’ occur in music, time and time again. How else may composers learn if not absorbing the influences of those who come before them, and whom they consider to be worthy? Just the other night I was listening to the strains of the Mendelssohn piano trio in D minor emanating out of a Lincoln Center broadcast, and there is one phrase which always drives me berserk--as it is almost an exact quote of a portion of Nedda’s passionate plea to Silvio in their duet…right before “Tutto scordiam…”, or should I rephrase that properly, and say that Nedda’s outburst is almost an exact paraphrase of the Mendelssohn? From Mendelssohn to “Mangiacavallo” is a broad jump leap, but there you have it! It happens.

            All right, I’ll go do my homework now, Teach.

            • Not really on topic but I’ve quite often wondered if Verdi knew Mendelssohn’s 3rd before composing Macbeth.

            • Camille

              What do you mean by that? Which part of which work compares to the other?

              I thought you were in Nineveh??? I have my Don Carlosat my side! Have to return to my homework, as sorry I’ve been sluffing off as I haven’t felt like concentrating while suffering through a mild case of flu.

            • Sorry, I didn’t see this reply. I was thinking of parts of the slow movement of the symphony and the act 3 ghosts in Macbeth.

            • Camille

              Which “idiot”? Pas vous!!

              No, I think you may have something there, at least Verdi having absorbed something of the tinta of this work, and of which he was always so fond of referring to in his letters. This was a comparative “new work” when Verdi wrote his Macbeth, as well.

              A sartorial aside and advisement:
              You’d best put on your best Spanish court dress for meeting up with Don Carlos, just a word to the wise!

            • I doubt there will be any court dress in a Warlikowski production! But if it’s any consolation, I will be going directly from the office, so I won’t be wearing jeans.

            • Camille

              The Spanish Royal Court acknowledges your sacrifice and extends you a great big ol’ GRACIAS!

              You are going when--the 19th--the day/night of the broadcast?? I hope so as then we will be listening to the same performance. Can’t wait for the hour.

            • 19th, yes. But will they broadcast the same performance, or an earlier one? The broadcast starts much later than the performance, which for obvious reasons begins at 6 PM, like a Parsifal or Tristan.

            • Camille

              Oh. Thanks. I had not thought of that. It will begin at 2:55 pm EDT here so I am gurssing not. I am going to write done my impressions tomorrow night of Norma so I am starting to form some good habits as my steel trap memory has turned to jelly.

            • fletcher

              Fondly wishing Mrs JC could chime in now: “Any IDIOT with a score could see”…

            • Camille

              Maybe you could take over that line to keep the tradition ongoing……..?

            • Camille
            • fletcher

              IMSLP is your friend!

              Anyway, for Berlioz, Boulez is usually very good. I can’t say though that I’m very fond of his SF -- I almost always listen to Markevitch/Berlin or Paray/Detroit, or Davis/Concertgebouw.

            • Camille

              Mio marito doesn’t want me to download on his computer as it is getting older and is already overburdened by all his crud, but YES, I know IMSLP is a friend I am still awaiting to meet, un bel dì!!! And you know——-I have recently purloined his old MAC laptop from him, and maybe that’s just what I’ll start doing--downloading all that stuff! That reminds me of my current crusade to rid myself of unwanted scores and crap…I only know of one place to try to unload them, and sure as hell the NYPAL probably doesn’t want or need them—--although their library is kind of spotty in respects—--I should go look at some smaller school around here and make a big dump there. It’s hard to part with them, though, but I must.

              Well, thank you for the specific recommendations and I would probably look into the Davis/Concertgebouw, as I love both. Mr Davis conducted a Roméo et Juliette here about fifteen years ago which I’ll never forget as it was the one time the acoustics of Avery Fisher (then) Hall did not ruin the music. I just have no idea how he transformed the acoustic of that square box with his magisterial baton, but he most certainly did, and it was a most treasurable performance. It was so thrilling to finally catch him in performance after having heard endlessly of him since the Covent Garden Troyens, years before.

            • Camille

              After listening repeatedly to the Boulez Symphonie Fantastique I must say now I see why you are not as fond of it and now ALL I can hear is the opening to Traviata when lkstening to the opening. Haha. Old dog learns new trick.

  • Ivy Lin

    As it happens I found this video of Callas in Traviata. What was surprising to me is that how little the essence of Traviata is changed whether it’s a production like Callas’s or the Decker Traviata as long as the Violetta understands the role. Callas’s body language in the party scene is very much like a businesswoman who is “leaning in.” It’s actually rather masculine, the way she surveys the room, even with a billowing crinoline. This is clearly someone who has been “doing her job” for a long time. And in the next scene the way she’s curled up in her divan shows the difference between the public face of Violetta and the private pain.

    I actually think Traviata is one of the most singer-centered operas and the most resistant to differences in production. A good Violetta who understands the role can probably walk straight from the Cavani production into the Decker without really changing much about her portrayal.