Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Tragic love lost & regained


Aurelia Florian as Violetta Valery in San Francisco Opera's production of Verdi's "La Traviata." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Verdi's beloved "La Traviata" opened last week as the third offering in San Francisco Opera's fall season, greeted by appreciative cheers and more than a few sighs of relief. The thoroughly traditional production is a satisfying throwback to the days when singers were left to shape the dramatic arc of the story and directors were meant to support them with clear and unfussy stage movement.

Outgoing Company Music Director Nicola Luisotti is no stranger to reinterpretation of standard repertoire by modern directors, but he remains steeped in an admirably idiomatic approach to Italian opera. They may put a revisionist stamp on old warhorses; he supports the composer with an eye for detail and love for every familiar tune. His shaping of the score was reason enough to attend, smoothing out the rum-ti-tum rhythms in the choral pages and offering real symphonic breadth in the beautiful duets.

Re-thinking a timeworn tale can sometimes bring new insight. The SFO's "Elektra" this season is a good example. But there is less need to elucidate the plot of "La Traviata." It is a simple saga of love lost and regained (though tragically too late), and the libretto provides a sturdy framework for some of opera's most enchanting melodies.

English director John Copley has returned to revive his classic production from 1987 with stage director Shawna Lucey. The opulent sets by John Conklin and extravagantly rich costumes by David Walker still look fabulous, bathed in a lovely golden glow by Gary Marder's lighting design.

Aurelia Florian as Violetta Valery and Atalla Ayan as Alfredo Germont in Verdi's "La Traviata." Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Ian Robertson's SFO Chorus sounds great, both onstage and off, and they are allowed some amusing personal characterization, which they pull off with customary zeal. Artistic Director of Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco, choreographer Carola Zertuche (SFO debut) moves the Spanish dancers with flair in the second-act party scene.

The stage of the War Memorial Opera House has been perfectly set for the presentation of three international artists making their SFO debuts in the central roles. Opening-night pressure aside, they all made a favorable impression that will surely strengthen as the run continues.

As ardent young Alfredo Germont, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan threatened to go off the rails a few times in big moments early in the second act, but he made it through, and if he seemed a little forced, it was still convincing. He was excellent in the first and last acts, where his confidence appeared effortless.

Surprisingly enough, or perhaps not, in the role of his father Giorgio Germont, Polish baritone Artur Rucinski rather stole the spotlight with a pleasingly rounded tone that filled the auditorium with ease. He looked a tad young for the part, but his acting, like that of all the principals, was elegant and believable.

Of course, the ultimate success of any production rests upon the delicate shoulders of the tragic heroine Violetta Valery. Verdi makes some almost impossible demands of her: coloratura soprano in Act I, lyric soprano in Act II, and dramatic soprano in Act III. Pretty heavy marching orders for the cynical courtesan with a heart of gold, facing a life-threatening health issue.

If the chosen performer can make it through Act I, all should go well. Unlike Alfredo, we didn't fall in love with Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian immediately, but she looked perfect and achieved her first arias fittingly. Her performance continued to grow incrementally to a heartfelt and touching conclusion. She suffered, but still sounded beautiful. Okay, Giuseppe, mission accomplished, and the thrilled first-nighters rewarded her with an extended ovation.

Smaller roles were effectively cast, with singers drawn from the current or former ranks of the Merola Opera Program and San Francisco Opera Center's Adler Fellows. Mezzo-soprano Renee Rapier was delightful as a coquettish Flora Bervoix; bass Anthony Reed was a resonant and uncommonly young and handsome Doctor Grenvil; and soprano Amina Edris (also younger than usual, but convincingly made-up) was a sympathetic Annina.

Judging from the remarks of departing audience members, an old-fashioned take on a well-loved classic is just what they wanted and received.


"La Traviata" continues in repertory through Oct. 17.


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