Last Night: Verdi's La Traviata at the War Memorial Opera House

Categories: Arts, Last Night
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Chris Hardy
Ailyn Pérez as Violetta Valéry
Better than: Sex (work).

It figures, doesn't it, that it was Rhett Butler -- that manliest of men -- who opined that reputation is something people with courage can do without.  Change "people" to "men," add italics for emphasis, and you'd have the take-away lesson from Verdi's La Traviata.  (That, and young soprano Ailyn Pérez is brilliant -- more on that shortly.)  Its heroine -- one of the more fully realized female roles in traditional opera -- is hardly lacking in courage. But when reputation is reducible to sexual purity, and that purity or its lack determines your place in the world, reputation suddenly seems tyrannical rather than dispensable.

The plot, as my date for the evening observed, falls into the time-honored camp of "let's kick this [lady] around for three acts and then watch her die." Violetta Valéry, a Paris courtesan with one hell of a bad cough, accepts the romantic advances of upper-crusty Alfredo Germont, and all is dandy until papa Giorgio Germont shows up to remind Violetta that she is -- how to put this politely -- a whore. Angst and noble self-effacing gestures ensue, the cough gets worse, and by the time Germont père comes round to the notion that whores are, like, people too, Violetta's on her deathbed. Uplifting stuff.

SF Opera's production sets the action in the Jazz Age, a plausible choice but not one that particularly adds much (save for a disco ball and a vintage Buick) to the operatic proceedings -- and in any event, the setting becomes less pertinent as the timeless theme of frustrated love unfolds. The choice of era does, however, make for some resplendent costumes, as 1920s couture surely represents an improvement over the initial 1859 San Francisco staging in eighteenth-century powdered-wig drag (the idea was to locate the then-risqué plot firmly in the past, whores not being a transhistorical phenomenon or anything).

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Chris Hardy
After a timid start, at first occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, Pérez' performance as Violetta went from strength to strength. The iffy dynamics settled down and actually became a positive feature, as Pérez proved herself capable of summoning as much emotive power during quieter moments as when singing at full volume. Her first real test came at the heart of the first act, when she was onstage alone cannily debating the merits of falling in love. Her Violetta was coquettish yet not cloying, combining a delightful voice with unusually natural acting. In the first half of Act 2, she hit another high point in her scene with Giorgio Germont (baritone Dwayne Croft) -- particularly during an affecting moment in which she addresses herself to his daughter, the unseen presence that ironically drives the romantic turmoil onstage.  

But it was during the final act, hearing Violetta describe herself as a "fallen woman" and humbly beg admittance to heaven, that I actually felt tears come to my eyes. This, mind you, from someone whose previous experience with crying in theaters is limited to the ending of the Texas high-school football film Friday Night Lights. The scene sounds bathetic on paper, but in Pérez' hands it was anything but -- her finely controlled interpretation of the music and understated acting created a classic instance of less affording more. (More became more again at the conclusion of the opera, when Violetta collapsed and expired with a bang rather than a tubercular whimper.)

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Chris Hardy
The other main roles were capably discharged all around. In particular, Croft made an excellent paterfamilias as the elder Germont, and his scenes with Pérez were just as memorable as those involving his son, Alfredo, Violetta's lover. As same, tenor Charles Castronovo does as well as can be expected in what is easily the least juicy role of the main three. Brandishing a foot-long cigarette holder and sporting a fire-red bob, mezzo-soprano Leann Sandel-Pantaleo supplies a blowzy, mildly comic presence as Flora, Violetta's fellow courtesan.

In his final production as musical director, Donald Runnicles was warmly received by the audience, and presided over a masterful rendition of Verdi's soaring, romantic score. The orchestra was never as effective as at the beginning of the third act, when, against a backdrop of falling snow, Violetta slumbers fitfully on a couch. There is no singing, subtitles, or elaborate scenery to distract from the pure beauty of the music, and in Runnicles' interpretation, it tells us all we need to intuit about what has transpired between the acts.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: You can probably guess how I feel about the whole virgin-whore dichotomy, but what really sucks is being forced to pay $9 a glass for Crane Lake chardonnay (roughly 14 times the going rate at BevMo).

Random detail: After taking her final bows, Pérez was so enthused by the audience's response to her performance that she giddily hopped up and down and clapped her hands.  Quick, somebody send her to diva school!  (Actually, don't -- it was too endearing.)

By the way: Final performances (with Elizabeth Futral as Violetta) are July 2 and 5.  Visit www.sfopera.com for details.  In Italian, with English supertitles.

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