The word “traviata” only appears early in the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. Facing death, Violetta uses it to describe herself; and, in the supertitles that Jerry Sherk provided for the current production of this opera by San Francisco Opera (SFO), given its second performance in the War Memorial Opera House last night, the word is translated as “fallen woman,” which is also how it appears in many libretto texts. By the time Violetta sings those words, she has fallen from a great height (as Jean Cocteau once said of Oedipus). Sadly, in last night’s staging, it felt as if the production had fallen with her.
La Traviata may be one of Verdi’s most popular operas; but, when compared with much of his other work, it cannot be called one of the best he crafted. Even Aida, which many would regard as the height of pure spectacle in the Verdi canon, brings more depth of personality to its characters and reflects much of that depth through its music. One might say that the score falls along with Violetta, although the height of the music is not where many would imagine.
That height can be found in the very first measures of the opera’s first act. This is a passage in which time seems to stand still, almost as if Verdi had finally cracked some of the rhetorical secrets in the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose scores Verdi supposedly kept for bedtime reading. (Franco Zeffirelli seemed to grasp the significance of Verdi’s relation to time in this passage through the way in which he crafted an establishing sequence for his film of La Traviata.)
Unfortunately, these few measures are followed by some of the most tedious oompah accompaniment that Verdi ever wrote. The fact that Music Director Nicola Luisotti, conducting last night, could pull down his dynamics to mask this tedium with judicious understatement established his as the most musical mind of the evening. For the remainder of the opera’s three hours, Luisotti was always there teasing out subtle dynamic contours that not only kept the action moving forward but also managed to transcend any sense of the routine in Verdi’s writing.
Sadly, even with the stunning sets designed by John Conklin and the period-appropriate costumes of David Walker, activity on the stage rarely rose to the level of what was going on in the pit. This was unfortunate, since the current production is the latest outing of the staging conceived by John Copley, which has been in the SFO repertoire since 1987. Sadly, Shawna Lucey seemed desperately out of her element in her efforts to bring Copley’s vision to the stage for the current run. What had been both sensible and compelling on past occasions came off as little more than negligent.
Equally problematic was the casting. This is a scenario with three key characters and a lot of extras. All three of those characters were presented by vocalists making their respective SFO debuts. Violetta was sung by Aurelia Florian, Alfredo Germont, who is smitten with Violetta, was sung by tenor Atalla Ayan, while the part of his father Giorgio was taken by baritone Artur Ruciński. Of these three Ayan gave an account that was dramatically convincing and musically sound. His voice was relatively light, but he used it to advantage in presenting Alfredo as a flesh-and-blood character.
Florian, on the other hand, was all about her powerful dynamics, which, sadly, made a poor balance with Luisotti’s ongoing attentiveness to subtle shifts in volume. There was some hope that Florian’s decibels would tone down a bit by the final act; but, even at death’s door, he Violetta account kept firing away on all cylinders. Nevertheless, Florian managed to bring at least some sense of personality to her portrayal. Ruciński walked through his role as if he never quite knew what to do with himself. Previous productions of Copley’s staging made it clear that the son-father relationship was as significant as that of the two lovers; but last night Ruciński had almost nothing to bring to realizing that relationship.
Even if La Traviata was not Verdi’s finest effort, it still has qualities worthy of attention. Luisotti knows this and did his best to stand up for Verdi through the composer’s instrumental writing. Sadly, little was done to do the same for the vocal side of this opera.