Saturday night saw the opening performance of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) at the San Diego Opera (at the SD Civic Theater in Downtown). The show had a glitchy start when Ian Campbell, the SDO's General Director and Artistic Director, came to the curtain to announce that maestro Karen Keltner (the SDO's Principal Conductor) will be substituting for Renato Palumbo, who was to make his house debut with the performance. It was a really last minute sort of change and caused a 15 minutes delay as the technical crew made adjustment on the conductor's podium and music stand.
Most opera fans would already know the story of the opera, of course. It is based on a real story of famous 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis, as semi-fictionalized by one of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas (fis) shortly after her untimely death from tuberculosis at age 23.
Fabulously pretty and nearly universally bewitching courtesan Violetta Valery (Elizabeth Futral) gives a party as she is recovering from tuberculosis. One of her guests, Alfredo Germont (Marius Brenciu), declares his love for her. And though Violetta was keen on remaining free of bondage in order to live in pleasure, she is overcome by the force of their mutual attraction.
After a few months of living together at Violetta's country villa Alfredo finds out from Annina the maid (Rebecca Skaar) that his beloved has been selling off her possessions in order to fund their lifestyle, so he plans to go off to be their bread-winner. Unbeknown to him, though, his dad, Giorgio Germont (Alan Opie), beats him to a meeting with Violetta where he successfully asks her to let go of his son (because this affair with a courtesan is casting a bad light on the family and Alfredo's sister would find it harder to marry with this cloud over her). Distraught but determined to do the right thing for Alfredo, Violetta extracts from his father the promise that he would reveal her real motif for ditching his son after her death.
Being young, angry and overly flushed with hormones that make him think with the wrong body part, Alfredo publicly humiliates Violetta at Flora (Susanna Guzmán)'s party and is challenged to a duel by Baron Douphol (Nicolai Janitzky) while the heroine collapses. Papa Germont is immensely regretful of how his well-intended request has turned out for everyone decides to fulfill his promise a bit early and reveals the truth to Alfredo... who must now race the clock to get back to Violetta before she expires from tuberculosis-induced-heartache-compounded deadness (I know, I know, that is neither a real word nor a bonafide medical diagnosis... but then what can you expect from an opera queen, ay?).
This production of La Traviata is traditionally set and flawlessly directed by Andrew Sinclair. The sets are beautiful and uncluttered, nicely treading the line between being minimalistic and lavish (the flashy supporting cast costumes helped). The Act II scenery was actually applauded by a segment of the audience when the curtain went up! (I should note, though, that the opening night audience really couldn't wait to clap at many things. By the end of the third act I was hoping that the curtain would get stuck and refuse to come down until the last note of the music has sounded because the minute that thing moved nearly everyone started clapping and there was no hope of hearing the final bars of what the orchestra was still playing ).
The San Diego Symphony Orchestra was in the pit, of course, and sounded like a million buck all night long. The gltichy side-effect of the substitution showed up soon after the superbly performed overture, however, when the singers and the orchestra were just a tad out of sync for much of the first act. The orchestra was a bit ahead of the principal singers, but when the chorus joined in they were a tad ahead of everybody else... And the adjustments everybody was trying to make showed a bit more than they should... which goes to show that even the pros need practice time in order to perform flawlessly and I'm happy to report than most of the audiences very much appreciated the difficulties maestro Keltner faced in having to jump in to a performance with literally no notice at all. She got a well deserved warm ovations every time she entered the pit and at the curtain call.
Everything came together well by the time Elizabeth Futral launched into Violetta's Act I ending 'E strano! - Sempre libera', however. The American soprano looked quite fetching as her role requires and performed like a real veteran. Her top notes didn't rub well on me, but everything else was worthy of the fascinating courtesan who was well known in nearly every corner of Europe in the days before the invention of telecommunication and internet and when the rich and famous traveled in a horse-drawn carriage instead of a Porche or an H2 Hummer.
Her Violetta is neither very young nor very subtle, but she was convincing in her own ways. Sempre Libera was turned into something of a mad (as in angry mad) scene and elicited a warm round of applause. Her best qualities shone the brightest in the dramatic final act, however, with all the right accent and dynamism to highlight Violetta's hopeless distress in a very touching rendition of 'Addio, del passato.'
The most gorgeous voice of the cast, however, belongs to her onstage lover, the Alfredo of Romanian Marius Brenciu, whose beautifully Italianate tenor comes with a silky legato that no smoothie in San Diego County can compete with. It is a beautiful and well projected lyrical voice from top to bottom, deployed with prolific controlled... which makes him very easy to listen to even though he wasn't theatrically and vocally quite as ardent and hot-headed as my vision of Alfredo is.
The really splendid surprise appeared in the 2nd act of the opera when the British baritone Allan Opie appeared on stage as Alfredo's meddling papa, Giorgio Germont. His was easily the most theatrically and vocally commanding performance of the night. Excellent stage presence and full of all the right vocal gravitas, and I somehow found myself listening for his vocal line rather than Violetta's during their gorgeous Act II duet (the two voices don't really match that well).
The supporting cast was quite well done with Susanna Guzmán returning as a theatrically adept if vocally rather hideous Flora (I and everyone like the lass, mind you, but her voice sounded really shot.... by an uzi or something worse. It helped that she didn't have much to sing and when she did much of it was nearly inaudible). Rebecca Skaar was pleasing to hear as Violetta's devoted maid, Annina. Joseph Hu made a pleasantly wobbly Gaston, and Nicolai Janizky suitably snobbish Baron Douphol.
The San Diego Opera Chorus was (after the initial sync problem with the orchestra) spot on. The gypsy and toreador dancers were delightfully snappy and earned their choreographer, Kristina Cobarrubia, a nice round of applause at the curtain.
It was a good show! And everyone I talked to in the audience enjoyed the performance and LOVED the special treat of getting to see the stage crew change the set when they left the curtain up for much of the intermission between Acts II and III.
If you are in San Diego or within an easy driving distance, there are still 3 performances of La Traviata left: Tuesday April 20 (7PM), Friday April 23 (8PM), Sunday April 25 (2PM). Ticket information available at www.sdopera.com
Photos: All stage photos are by Ken Howard and posted courtesy of the San Diego Opera.