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Anna Netrebko as Violetta [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
24 Jun 2009

La Traviata in San Francisco

Much ink has been spilled over the failed Marta Domingo production of La Traviata that San Francisco Opera inexplicably imported for its blatantly audience baiting summer season (Traviata, Tosca, Porgy and Bess).

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

Violetta Valéry: Anna Netrebko / Elizabeth Futral (6/29, 7/2, 7/5) / Ailyn Pérez (7/1); Alfredo Germont: Charles Castronovo / David Lomelí (6/29, 7/2); Giorgio Germont: Dwayne Croft / Stephen Powell (6/29, 7/2); Flora: Leann Sandel-Pantaleo; Gastone: Andrew Bidlack; Baron Douphol: Dale Travis; Marquis D’Obigny: Austin Kness; Grenvil: Kenneth Kellogg; Annina: Renée Tatum; Giuseppe: Dale Tracy; Messenger: Bojan Knezevic; Flora’s Servant: William Pickersgill; Matador: Jekyns Pelaez. San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Donald Runnicles / Edwin Outwater* (7/5). Director and Designer: Marta Domingo.

Above: Anna Netrebko as Violetta [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]


Even the critical intention of finding the positive and ignoring the well publicized negatives of the production endured only through the first act (overheard intermission comments “she seems very organized,” “I’ve seen worse”).

The second act, a Verdi masterpiece, was rendered nonsensical, the storytelling eviscerated — Violetta flippant, Germont deadly cold, Alfredo happen chance. Flora’s party was the occasion of an extended ballet of the sort that makes audiences laugh. Violetta’s death was enacted in the heavens, possibly a reference, maladroit, to the Eurydice myth.

TMPicture130.gifCharles Castronovo as Alfredo [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

If there was ever any theatrical integrity to this production it had evaporated in this strange encounter of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, a superb singer and a very particular artist, with the wife of Placido Domingo. Clearly there was no connection between the emotional immediacy projected by Mme. Netrebko, her dramatic delivery of text that was high Monteverdi in its directness and intensity, and the stylized, content-less staging perpetrated by Mme. Domingo.

Mme. Netrebko was in fine form for the June nineteenth performance, the third of her five performances (Elizabeth Futral takes a further three performances, Ailyn Perez one more). Her voice filled the theater with an unusual volume and richness, pitch precision sometimes subjugated to declamation in infinite tonal and rhythmic colorations. It may be noted that she did not take the ‘Sempre libera’ high E-flat, nor did she open the traditional cuts in ‘Ah, fors’é lui’ or her ‘Addio del passato’.

Mme. Netrebko nearly met her match in American tenor Charles Castronovo who brought urgency, voluptuously sculpted text delivery, beauty of tone and a handsome stage presence to this Verdi tenor, though like all of them prototypically unlikeable.

CW_MG_2864.gifDwayne Croft (Giorgio Germont) and Anna Netrebko (Violetta Valéry) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Dwayne Croft, père Germont, possesses a fine instrument that he uses with great care, and with commendable musicality. Though naturally commanding his stage presence and musicianship paled in his confrontations with Violetta and his son when it needed the immediacy and authority to confuse their youthful impulses.

Reveling in this charged musicality erupting from the stage conductor Donald Runicles melted into a rapport with the stage that is all too rare in opera, and when it occurs sublime music is sometimes heard. Mo. Runnicles’ mannered tempi and phrasing were elaborated by those mannerisms of his not particularly Italianate soprano and tenor, and tempered by the stylistic cleanliness and musical purity of his baritone. Finally the weeping minor seconds of Violetta’s death rang incisively, with a final agogic [a slight withholding of the beat] choke from the throbbing violins — representative of the Runnicles mannerism catalogue.

CW_MG_3288.gifAnna Netrebko (Violetta Valéry) and Dale Travis (Baron Douphol) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

It could have been thrilling indeed, this death, had the stage moved in concert with the Verdi poetic. Mme. Domingo imposed the forms of the roaring twenties, a metaphor that does not seem to match the atmospheres of this mid-nineteenth century morality play, perhaps because art nouveau lines are overwhelmingly sensual, and flashing, reflective surfaces too sexually forceful. Finally La Traviata is a simple story of family life that easily disappears in fanciful images (three ballerinas floated onto the stage to drape Violetta in a bridal gown during the death scene, as one of many examples).

As this review is for Opera Today and not the Harvard Business Review the focus is on the art of opera, not the art of business. Perhaps an evaluation of the business of opera as reflected in this Traviata and last week’s Tosca would validate some of the artistic choices, and one hopes, result in more positive terms. Otherwise there can be no point to San Francisco Opera’s summer season.

Michael Milenski

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