Monday, September 25, 2017

La Traviata, San Francisco Opera

Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) and Aurelia Florian (Violetta)
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera has two warhorses in the fall season, balancing out Elektra, which way too many people consider tough going, and the upcoming John Adams premiere, Girls of the Golden West. Verdi's evergreen La Traviata opened this past Saturday night, and maybe that warhorse strategy is no longer working so well, because there were an awful lot of empty seats in the Dress Circle.

Put me down as "modified rapture" on this cast. All three of the stars were making their SFO debuts, with varying results. Tenor Atalla Ayan, who hails from Brazil, struck me as a generic lyric tenor. He has a nicely burnished, big-enough voice, but sounded slightly strangled at the top and sang the entire first act in a monotone, with little dynamic variation. He also didn't manage much in the way of youthful impetuosity, which is what defines Alfredo Germont in that act. He improved some over the course of the opera, but remained on the blunt side. Nothing in his performance stands out except for the fact that he threw the money at Violetta twice, and the first time was wrong. Okay, nerves, it won't happen again, but it's a big moment in a dramatic scene.

Artur Ruciński (Giorgio Germont)
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I'm totally down with Polish baritone Artur Ruciński, singing Giorgio Germont, who has a beautiful baritone voice, very solid and large, with good high notes, not too far off what Mariusz Kwicien (whom I adore, don't get me wrong) would sound like if he were a real Verdi baritone rather than a lyric baritone who can nonetheless sing Verdi roles convincingly. Ruciński was a little on the stiff side dramatically, which I suspect is how he was directed, and those grace notes in "Di provenza" were hammered a bit, which again, maybe it's him, maybe it's how he sings the character.

And now the moment you've been waiting for: Aurelia Florian had a gruesome first act, tripping over herself here and there in "Sempre libera," getting out of sync with the orchestra once or twice in the same aria, having obvious difficulty with some of her high notes, and occasionally going out of tune. She and Ayan also didn't have much obvious chemistry. On her side, she did show a beautiful voice with an interesting dark timbre, but overall I didn't have a lot of hope for the rest of the opera.

The fact is that the stars of the first act were the orchestra, chorus, and Music Director Nicola Luisotti. The orchestra sounded great, the chorus sang with vigor and pinpoint accuracy, and Luisotti conducted a propulsive, yet flexible, account of the score. In fact, I'd say that Luisotti's only misstep during the opera was in Act II, scene XII, which happens to start with Alfredo's entrance right after the bullfighter dance. He is an uninvited guest -- he found the invitation back at his and Violetta's country house -- and he's enraged. Violetta and Baron Douphol enter shortly after that, and that 6/8 section was just too damn fast. Violetta has a couple of long, arching phrases in this section that need some time to expand, and Luisotti hurried right over them.

BUT back to the beginning of Act II. My hopes should have stayed high, because Aurelia Florian sang a lovely and touching Violetta from there to the very end of the opera. Whether it was nerves or fioriture that sank Act I I do not know, but she can't be the first soprano to have issues there. She certainly redeemed herself! "Ditte alla giovine" tore me apart; "Amami, Alfredo" had a beautiful arching line; she was vulnerable with a core of emotional steel throughout the scene with Giorgio Germont. And she maintained that tenderness through the end of the opera. Act III is mostly hers, and she died most beautifully, with good contributions from Ayan and Ruciński, and also from Anthony Reed as Dr. Grenvil and Amina Edris as Annina.

Speaking of the smaller roles, they were all very beautiful sung: Renée Rapier as Flora, Amitai Pati as Gastone, and Philip Skinner as Baron Douphol.

Dramatically, this revival isn't much to write home about. The new Backstage with Matthew email is all about how great John Copley is, but I am not buying it. Honestly, the sets are uninteresting and the direction ranges from adequate to embarrassing. This partygoer being spanked, that courtesan falling down and kicking her legs up to show her bloomers? Just no. Giorgio Germont 15 feet from Violetta while he sings that he's kneeling and asking her forgiveness? Um. These details show inattention and perhaps a bit of a failure of taste. Perhaps if you want to show the wild partying, it should really be wild. Worse, the direction doesn't really give a good dramatic shape to the drama; I was never quite convinced of the intensity of Violetta and Alfredo's devotion. The singing carries the day more than anything else.

There's new choreography for the Act 2 dances, but it's nothing to write home about. I was annoyed to a possibly unreasonable extent by the fact that the two female dancers were out of sync with each other, with one of them noticeably behind the other. I just don't understand this; can't she hear where the downbeats are? Perhaps this is the same dancer who was behind the other two in the ballet sequence in Nixon in China five years ago.

So, while it wasn't a great evening, it was pretty darned good, especially Aurelia Florian, Artur Ruciński, the chorus, orchestra, and Nicola Luisotti. If you have a hankering to see this opera, by all means, get a ticket.

Renée Rapier (Flora), Aurelia Florian (Violetta), Anthony Reed (Dr. Grenvil), 
Amitai Pati (Gastone), Andrew G. Manea (Marquis d'Obigny), 
Artur Ruciński (Giorgio Germont), Atalla Ayan (Alfredo Germont)
Act II party at Flora's
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

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