High-Powered Cast Breathes Life Into a Traviata Revival

United StatesUnited States Verdi, La traviata: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of San Francisco Opera / Nicola Luisotti (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 26.9.2017. (HS)

A scene from Act I of Verdi's 'La Traviata' (Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)
A scene from Act I of La traviata (c) Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Violetta Valéry — Aurelia Florian
Alfredo Germont — Atalla Ayan
Giorgio Germont — Artur Ruciński
Flora Bervoix — Renée Rapier
Gastone — Amitai Pati
Baron Douphol — Philip Skinner
Doctor Grenvil — Anthony Reed
Marquis d’Obigny — Andrew G. Manea
Annina — Amina Edris

Production — John Copley
Stage Director — Shawna Lucey
Set Designer — John Conklin
Lighting Designer — Gary Marder
Chorus Director — Ian Robertson
Choreographer — Carola Zertuche
Costume Designer — David Walker

There’s nothing like a crew of impressive young singers to bring an oft-seen opera to life. Romanian soprano Aurelia Florian is making her United States debut as Violetta Valéry in San Francisco Opera’s La traviata, heard in the second of ten performances last Tuesday. Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan, barely 30, unfurled a pearly sound and youthful ardor as Alfredo Germont, and Polish baritone Artur Ruciński complemented him as his father, Giorgio Germont. Both were also  making company debuts.

As a group this cast may well be remembered as the best to perform in front of John Copley’s traditional sets (mounted here for the seventh time), delivering the goods with high-quality lyric singing energized with passionate dramatic presence. Nicola Luisotti, conducting his final opera as the company’s music director (but booked to guest conduct in future years), gave his signature attention to vivid details.

The production was mounted first in 1987 for Nelly Miricioiu, also a Romanian-born soprano. Subsequent Violettas here included Carol Vaness, Patricia Racette, Ruth Ann Swenson, and Anna Netrebko, but they never had two such solid men to complete the triangle. The closest may have been Rolando Villazón and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who sang with Swenson in 2004, conducted by Patrick Summers.

But in this latest revival, Florian impressed in her ability to steer her big voice without any apparent strain through the treacherous coloratura in Act I, the emotional ping-pong of Act II, and the final struggle for life in Act III. She colored key words with a satiny gleam here, a feral edge there, summoning high-beam spinto power when called for, sometimes in a single phrase. As an actress she did not shy away from any opportunities for hot-blooded outbursts, but stopped just short of overly emoting.

She was good in Act I, effortlessly bringing extra point to the coloratura in the scena with “Sempre libera” and “È Strano.” She was better in Act II, going from utmost delicacy in “Dita alla giovine” to a burst of ardor for “Amami, Alfredo!” And she was best in Act III, with a serene “Addio, del passato” and a touching “Parigi, o cara” duet with Ayan.

Ayan’s singing was especially radiant when he soared into his highest range, executed without apparent effort, but he also had a fresh-faced stage presence to balance Florian’s. He led off the Act I “Brindisi” with youthful flair, and “Di miei bollenti spriti” opened Act II with a sleek start. He was also appropriately worked up for the moment in Act II when he embarrasses himself in front of Flora’s party.

Ruciński’s lyric baritone also excelled near the top of his range. Perhaps this softened his Giorgio’s sense of gravitas, but it enhanced the moments when he was trying to be persuasive. His two Act II arias, “Pura siccome un angelo” and “Di provenza il mar,” were darn near musically perfect.

As good as these individual set pieces were, these three were at their best together. Sparks flew whenever Florian and Ayan focused on each other, and the Act II duets flowed with all the turbulence one could ask. Credit Luisotti for keeping things moving most of the time so they could linger over the most wrenching moments.

Stage director Shawna Lucey, who has assisted in several previous productions, made her company debut, guiding the principals into moments that felt real, even in the complex party scenes. In Act I it was clear who was doing what with whom, and what they were thinking. Lucey injected much fun to Flora’s Act II Scene 2 party: One tipsy matron was amusingly out of step with the rest, and there was a bit of mildly risqué S&M activity between Baron Douphol and a chorister. Luxury casting placed former San Francisco Ballet principal Lorena Feijoo at the heart of the party’s Flamenco dance.

As usual, the chorus brought vitality and clear singing everywhere, populating the stage with appealing detail.

Quality singing ran through the rest of the cast, made up of current and former Adler Fellows from the company’s development program. Of special note were the louche Flora of mezzo soprano Renée Rapier, the eager Gastone of tenor Amitai Pati, and the sympathetic Doctor Grenvil of Anthony Reed, complemented by veteran bass-baritone Philip Skinner’s jocular Baron Douphol.

If this bunch represents the future of opera, we are in capable hands.

Harvey Steiman

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