San Francisco Opera 2022-23 Review: La Traviata

Pretty Yende Triumphs in New Production by Shawna Lucey

By Lois Silverstein

San Francisco Opera created a memorable performance out of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” a work That once heard, will always im[act you deeply.

Director Shawna Lucey, the recently appointed general director of Opera San José, and her team created a lovely production that detailed the changing seasons of nature and buttressed the changing love-relationship between Violetta and Alfredo. Each scene depicted shifting light, color, mood, to highlight the particular events occurring: the meeting between Alfredo and Violetta at the ball; the country home to which where Violetta and Alfredo have escaped for their love idyll; the ball at Flora’s place, red lit and garish, and where the multitude of friends danced and partied in a shimmer of mutli-colored costumes; the finale, in Violetta’s apartment where the sole action is the dying of the heroine, set in grey and blue shadow. The scenes move in time and yet the set remained steady. Lucey built the shifting passage of time on to emphasize the shifting events and feelings. 

Lucey, Hopkins, and Clark aimed to emphasize the turning world from which the lovers would all too soon disappear. It worked well.

Two Stars of the Night

Eun Sun Kim led the San Francisco Orchestra with her buoyant energy. She didn’t waste time. The brief and poignant overture, reappearing in the final act, set the stage for its alternating beaming lyricism and its poignant pathos. Mostly she conducted the orchestra as an unobtrusive agent for beauty and strong feeling. She led it as a superb accompaniest, rather than as the only driver of the show.

As such, she brought out the best in her star soprano Pretty Yende.

In her San Francisco debut, the South African soprano was a quintessential Violetta. Her coloratura soared from early coquette to lyric drama queen, which kept us on a thrilling ride. She flirted, she flitted, she teased and intoxicated – she made us care. She sang from inside Violetta’s passion and conflict. In fact, the beauty of her sound made the illness besetting her a fantasy for much of the three acts. Someone with that kind of sheen, with that kind of power, on the verge of dying? That was Pretty Yende’s fine art, however. Her “Sempre libera” was as convincing as it could be with her energetic physical and vocal reach .

By the third act, the “Sempre libera” of Act one was the shadow, and rightly so. Instead, here we found a young woman in a pale nightdress, barely breathing, barely moving, desperate to reclaim some of her earlier joie de vivre, straining to rise from chair/chaise to rejoice at the arrival of Alfredo, just before she died. From that chair/chaise, death-bed, she begged Annina to help her dress. After opening the shuttered windows,  lifted by the jovial crowds singing outside on the streets, and to which she yearned to go, we felt her anguish. Die? Now? Three acts of stamina and beauty amazed and thrilled the audience.

Falling Short

Chilean-American tenor Jonathan Tetelman sang her Alfredo. No question Tetelman, making his San Francisco debut, shone too, especially in his top register. But it was lacking in passion and spontaneity.  He sang his “I miei bollenti spiriti,” for instance, with high energy and ardor, perhaps convincing Violetta, if not all of us. His intensity looked authentic, but his burnished high notes came across an over-emphatic attack rather than building and floating. This broke some of the legato and deemphasized some of the feeling he was singing to convey. His gestures and general stiffness in movement seemed prescribed rather than springing spontaneously from the fully embodied lover. Our Violetta remained, almost always, the woman in charge, and his race across the stage in the final act to take her in his arms felt more strategic than sincere.

Simone Piazzola, Germont Père, in his San Francisco debut, did a banner job vocally. A beautiful and rich baritone with nice lows and full expansion of the music, but without enough variety. His upright stiffness fit the role of Germont Père well in the first part of the Second Act. He stated his case, he met her tentative arguments, he didn’t look her in the eye; in fact, he barely looked at her at all. It would have been more convincing, as the scene progressed, if he varied that stiff-necked and stalwart posture and showed more of the human being that he was. After all, he was pleading for his daughter; he was not all terrible, despite the world social conventions he embodied. Custom and ceremony was the name of his game. By the time he arrived at the end of the third act, he bent a little, yes, certainly, too little too late. His vocal range was more than pleasing, even as some of his piano singing dissolved under his weighty intentions. Still, his sonorous voice resonated long after the great duet was done.

The Chorus, under the direction of John Keene, sang as more as one voice than as a diverse group of “amici,” friends. As such they moved and bent and turned and sang as a stream of information rather than individual beings, despite their distinctive, marvelously colored costumes. In true San Francisco fashion, in the Third Act, the “red hot party scene,” the conventional world Père Germont embodied has vanished. Instead, here we have a man adorned in a Pope’s hat, and a companion in a tuxedo jacket, ballet shoes and a pink tulle skirt, designed to be a momentary scene stealer. So too the dancers in their dual male/female costumes, sporting skirts and bodices on one side, mustaches and tuxedos on the other. In other words an updated avant-garde Victor/Victoria agent that accented the libertine world from which Violetta fled for her love of Alfredo.

In addition to the run in the War Memorial Opera House, “La Traviata” partnered with the San Francisco Giants and was simulcast in the ballpark. There, on the 71 -f oot-high x 153-foot wide, 4K videoboard it was live-streamed for free. Since 2007 Opera at the Ballpark has attracted more than 300,00 attendees. Finally, the opera was also live-streamed and available for a limited on-demand showing for the low price of $27.50 a ticket.

Ultimately, this was a hit, thanks to the two women at the helm. A hit, we would say, for San Francisco, with its debut stars, and a lively and reminding portrait of the fate that awaits all, beautiful and passionate. We raise our glasses and salute life, art, love, and beauty, even its transitoriness.


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