‘La Traviata’ at San Francisco Opera

Demimondaine to flapper

The current production of La Traviata at the San Francisco Opera was developed for the Los Angeles Opera, and it bears all the qualities of that company’s artistic style: it is elegant and spacious, with lighting and set designs that are dramatic yet spare and that project profound wealth through a sure physical allure. The production is directed by Marta Domingo. Married to Plácido, she is yet another member of that outrageously talented opera and music family.

Domingo has moved La Traviata from the mid-19th-century Parisian demimonde to the world of 1920s flappers. In both milieus, young women grasped pleasure and used sexuality as a means of power and a path to freedom. The current opera’s social class is that of fashion setters, downing champagne and laden with rhinestones. And there is just a touch of the luminous art deco movement. The second act scenery, placed in Violetta Valéry’s country villa, is more than a little reminiscent of Gustav Klimt’s gold, patterned designs: delicate, glittering swirls crowd the air between the leafy layers of autumnal trees. In the following scene, the party at Flora’s, where Violetta returns to reoccupy her former life as a richly kept woman, the motif recurs—the walls are inscribed with huge spider webs and dancers in short gold outfits enacting dances conjured from ancient two-dimensional Egyptian poses.

The point, I suppose, is that Violetta’s freedom is not so free, not so fully realized; her glamorous life has a price, including her rejection of the man she loves—the rather spineless and sulky Alphonse Germont—in order to save his bourgeois family’s pride and social standing.

Set in this smooth and opulent backdrop—like a diamond on velvet—is the gorgeous Anna Netrebko. She has a voice to compete with the gold-paint-encrusted decorations of the opera house: lustrous and warm, with large and fully integrated colors perfectly centered on the tone. Her sound is big and moves outward from her body with an ease that is wondrously natural—perfect for the freedom that Violetta aspires to. And for those moments of contemplative uncertainty and sorrow, Netrebko’s pianissimo is thing of penetrating beauty.

Charles Castronovo sings Alphonse Germont. His sound is smaller and tighter than Netrebko’s; though vibrant in an Italian tenor way, his voice seems constrained. This improved in the second act. And despite the differences in vocal quality, Castronovo and Netrebko sounded lovely and passionate in their duets. They were able to project some chemistry together—especially Castronovo—a phenomenon often missing from operatic duos, each singer concentrating on his or her vocal projection and blend and submerging the roles’ erotic drive.

Dwayne Croft sang the interfering father, Giorgio Germont, with insistence and dignity. Leann Sandel-Pantaleo sang Flora, Violetta’s playgirl friend, vivid in red hair.

And in one of his last performances for the San Francisco Opera, Maestro Donald Runnicles conducted the company’s fine orchestra. Ending a 17-year career at the opera house, Runnicles was bathed in cheers by an audience that has often been less than enthusiastic about his talents.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post.