A Sensational LA TRAVIATA

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Wednesday September 27, 2017 - 11:55:00 AM

On Saturday, September 23, San Francisco Opera opened its 2017 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata by presenting three international singers who were all making their local debut. Violetta was sung by Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian; Alfredo was sung by Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan; and Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, was sung by Polish baritone Artur Rucinski. To put it succinctly, they were sensational! Rarely, if ever, until now, can I recall hearing for the first time three singers in principal roles in an opera and finding myself astounded by the top-level caliber of their singing! This was opera at its best! 

Based on the play La dame aux camélias by Alexander Dumas fils, La Traviata tells the story of Violetta Valéry, a beautiful but tubercular Parisian courtesan who unexpectedly finds true love in the person of young Alfredo Germont, gives up her frivolous pursuits of pleasure for Alfredo’s love, then sacrifices herself and her love for Alfredo at the insistence of Alfredo’s father, only to be reconciled with both father and son on her tragic deathbed at the close of the opera. In composing La Traviata, Verdi broke new ground in several important ways. Musically, La Traviata does not proceed according to conventional demarcations between arias and recitatives. Indeed, in La Traviata it is difficult to say where a recitative ends and an aria begins. Here there is an innovative, ongoing flow of music. Dramatically, Verdi gave this tragic opera a near-contemporary setting, thereby breaking with the convention that only comic operas could be set in contemporary times. Writing La Traviata in 1853, Verdi insisted on setting the opera in Paris of the recent 1840s.  

For this 2017 production of La Traviata, San Francisco Opera revived yet again John Copley’s somewhat stodgy but workable staging, which at least has the merit of offering sets by John Conklin and costumes by David Walker firmly rooted in the Parisian styles of the 1840s. Director Shawna Lucey oversaw the revived John Copely staging. (Thank goodness San Francisco Opera never reprised Marta Domingo’s embarrassing 2009 production of La Traviata, which, among other flaws, ludicrously staged Violetta’s deathbed scene on a circular bed on a bare stage where snow fell on the tubercular Violetta throughout the entire final Act!) 

As in 2014, La Traviata was conducted by Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who deepened his sensitive interpretation of this opera’s excellent score. Of particular note was Luisotti’s attention to changes of tempo, rhythm, and dynamics. In La Traviata’s orchestral Prelude, the opening notes of divided violins were played slowly and quietly, almost but not quite to the point of losing a sense of propulsion. Once the curtain rose, however, Luisotti’s orchestra markedly increased both volume and tempo, as the opera got underway. 

Act I opens on a festive party scene at Violetta’s lavish Parisian townhouse, a ‘gift’ of her male “protectors,” among whom is Baron Douphol. Young Alfredo Germont enters and is introduced to Violetta by his friend Gastone, sympathetically sung here by tenor Amitai Pati. Alfredo launches into a toast, the famous Brindisi. As sung here by tenor Atalla Ayan, this Brindisi was robust but gave few hints of the gorgeous singing yet to come from Atalla Ayan. Then, when Violetta has a brief fainting spell, Alfredo stays with her while the other partygoers traipse off to have dinner. Here Alfredo declares that a year ago he saw Violetta and has loved her ever since, often inquiring about her health to his friend Gastone. At first, Violetta treats this declaration of love with mocking irony. Little by little, however, she begins to wonder. Alfredo ardently insists on the sincerity of his love, Ayan’s voice now ringing with conviction and passion. 

When Alfredo leaves, Violetta sings the famous double-aria that begins “Ah, fors’ è lui” (“Perhaps he’s the one”). As Violetta, soprano Aurelia Florian sang with sumptuous tone, impeccable diction, and ravishing vocal color as she pondered for a moment the possibility of true love. Then, with the outburst, “Folie!” (“Madness!”), Violetta repudiates her momentary lapse into sincerity and redons her habitual social mask of a pleasure-seeking courtesan in the cabaletta, “Sempre libera.” Vowing to remain free to go with any man wealthy enough to bankroll her lavish lifestyle, Violetta launches a little too feverishly to be altogether convincing her dismissal of the possibility of finding true love. In Sempre libera,” Aurelia Florian sang with fierce resolve, flawed only by a slight shrillness on one high note, an excusable lapse in an evening’s performance that was otherwise sensational. (Even this momentary shrillness could be heard as indicative of the internal conflict roiling in Violetta as she precipitously rejects the idea of love presented by Alfredo.) 

Act II opens in a country house where Violetta, having fallen in love, lives happily with Alfredo. Three months have passed in their happy life together. Alfredo sings of his ecstatic love for Violetta, and here Atalla Ayan’s voice took on buoyant ardor and rich color. However, Violetta’s maid and confidante, Annina, sympathetically sung here by soprano Amina Edris, reveals to Alfredo that Violetta has been selling off her valuables to pay for their romantic idyll in the country. Mortified, Alfredo rushes off to Paris to raise the money to reimburse Violetta. Meanwhile, Violetta receives an unexpected visit from Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont. Sung by Polish baritone Artur Rucinski, Germont père begins a wheedling plea that Violetta must give up Alfredo so that Alfredo’s sister can marry her beloved fiancé, who will call off their engagement if Alfredo’s dishonorable liaison with the Parisian courtesan is not ended. As Giorgio Germont, Artur Rucinski sang with robust tone as he mustered one argument after another, all of dubious but apparently heartfelt logic, insisting that the noble thing for Violetta to do is to break off her liaison with Alfredo. Crushed but resolute, Violetta agrees to give up Alfredo. In this scene and in the next scene with his son Alfredo, Artur Rucinski gave as impressive and credible an interpretation of Giorgio Germont’s character as I have seen and heard in the nearly twenty performances I’ve attended of La Traviata.  

Act II, Scene 2 takes place at a party in Paris thrown by Violetta’s friend Flora, capably sung here by mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier. Alfredo arrives hoping to find Violetta, who has abandoned him, and either persuade her to return to him or, if not, to humiliate her to avenge his wounded pride. At the gaming tables, Alfredo gambles and wins. When Violetta arrives on the arm of Baron Douphol, ably sung here by veteran bass Philip Skinner, Alfredo angrily throws the cash of his winnings in the face of Violetta. Giorgio Germont, fearing that his son will act rashly, arrives just in time to witness this shameful action by Alfredo; and he bitterly rebukes his son for insulting Violetta. Baron Douphol challenges Alfredo to a duel as the scene ends. 

Act III is set in Violetta’s bedroom in her house in Paris. Her illness has taken a severe toll on her, and Doctor Grenvil, sympathetically sung here by bass Anthony Reed, tries to give Violetta hope while also confiding to Aninna that Violetta has little time left to live. When Aninna and the doctor leave the house, Violetta reads aloud to herself a letter from Giorgio Germont informing her that Alfredo has gone abroad after wounding Baron Douphol in the duel. Germont père has told his son of the sacrifice Violetta made at his insistence, and he reports that soon Alfredo will return to beg Violetta’s forgiveness, accompanied by his father, who will also beg Violetta’s forgiveness. In her weakened state, Violetta laments that she waits and waits, but still they don’t arrive.  

When Alfredo suddenly bursts in, announced excitedly by Aninna, Violetta is momentarily overjoyed. The reunited couple exclaims their undying love. Then Alfredo launches into an effusive plan, which begins with the words, “Parigi, o cara,” in which he ardently sings that together they’ll leave Paris and go to the country where nature will help cure Violetta of her illness. Here Conductor Luisotti takes Alfredo’s opening lines at a quick tempo and allows Alfredo a full-voiced elaboration of his plan. However, when Violetta takes up the same words and music, Luisotti retards the tempo by a half-beat and he alters the rhythm by emphasizing each syllable. Whereas Alfredo opened with ringing enthusiasm hoping to perk up Violetta, she, however, takes up the melody more softly and hesitantly, as if both realizing how ill she is and at the same time wistfully reflecting on the remote possibility that Alfredo’s plan could restore her to health and happiness. It’s a brilliant bit of conducting by Luisotti, one I’ve never encountered from any other conductor. Moreover, elsewhere in this closing scene of La Traviata Luisotti pays sensitive attention to dynamics. Contrary to the convention in which a frail and dying Violetta sings at full-voice throughout her deathbed scene, Luisotti has his Violetta sing much of the time in a soft, piano voice, allowing her to ring forth in full-voice only in occasional moments of exuberance and desperate hope. To her immense credit, Aurelia Florian sang the most utterly convincing and moving deathbed scene in La Traviata I have ever experienced. 

There are nine more performances of La Traviata throughout September and mid-October. If you see only one of the remaining operas scheduled this Fall at San Francisco Opera, you couldn’t go wrong in choosing to attend this sensational La Traviata.