Saturday, August 17, 2013

Traviata at Santa Fe

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard

La Traviata at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, Saturday, August 17, 2013 – Last night we drove up the freeway for the final of this season’s five-opera Santa Fe experience, Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, produced by Santa Fe Opera (SFO). The production itself, by Laurent Pelly (direction and costumes) with scenic design by Chantal Thomas, premiered at SFO in 2009. This year’s production, give or take a few scenic elements and musical cuts, is conducted by Leo Hussain.

Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano and Company
Photo by Ken Howard

The production itself so screams for attention – Look at me! Look at me! – that I would like to ignore it temporarily and concentrate on the principal singers; each having earned the right to shout and scream look at me, and each admirably game when it comes to Pelly’s outlandish, exuberant and downright odd staging. I am happy to say that Francesco Maria Piave’s text, based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel, La Dame aux Camelias, prevails despite the distractions. No matter the underlying implications or implied profound meaning in Pelly’s staging of the death scene, Violetta’s lover, Alfredo Germont, still arrives in time (or does he?) and Violetta still dies (assuredly), but alone. I suppose it’s up to each onlooker to decide what that means other than automatically assuring the diva first place in the order of curtain calls.

Papa Georgio Germont (baritone Roland Wood) is stiff, but that is a given of the role no matter the terrain (a mountain goat the baritone is not) or directorial intervention. Additionally Pelly’s stage direction often puts the Germont père on the other or upside of a chasm (I’ll explain later), not conducive to musical ensemble in that the all-important continuo is lost. Wood has a darkly covered baritone, but when he lays the gruff cover aside at the conclusion of “Di provenza…” as a singer must do, he achieves gorgeous high voice.

Brenda Rae and Michael Fabiano
Photo by Ken Howard
A 2005 SFO apprentice singer, tenor Michael Fabiano (Alfredo Germont) is an agile actor with an impressive, sincere ardor and a fine voice with gleaming top tones. He rids the role of the petulance so frequently observed.

As Violetta Valéry, soprano Brenda Rae is adept as Pelly’s Act One party girl, the essence of which is the arms-over-the-head-means-of-showing-abandon school of histrionics. Perhaps it’s not subtle, but the soprano wears the persona intent on pleasure and her hot pink flounces as well despite the unsubtle pallor of her illness. Verdi’s music helps, especially Violetta’s “Ah, fors’ è lui /Sempre Libera,” exceptionally sung, tonally accurate and mostly crisp on Friday night. To prove it’s good for something the hands-in-air technique was cleverly employed to prevent applause between the “Ah, fors’ è lui” and “Follie!” sections.

The Thomas-designed production places Violetta’s and Flora’s homes and even the countryside estate in magnified cubist terrain. Violetta’s wild after party takes place on a mountainous heap of packing crates or granite or marble slabs of various sizes. Again, it’s up to the eye of the beholder to decide the symbolism. There are walkways and steps between the monolithic cubes. In the country, the boxes become modified to resemble pieces of the sky wherein the ecstatic Violetta and besotted Alfredo dwell, unfortunately on her dime. Georgio arrives while Alfredo is in Paris, and persuades the dying Violetta to leave his son by way of sacrifice to save his family’s honor. She departs for a party at Flora’s
Brenda Rae as Violetta and Roland Wood as Georgio Germont
Photo by Ken Howard

In Flora’s house the packing crates are disguised as gambling surfaces, where the angry Alfredo throws his winnings at Violetta in retribution for what he believes is her desertion.

In the deathbed scene the boxes are covered with white sheets and Violetta’s bed, a former slab, is set downstage slightly left of center. Rae’s is not the clearest nor most affecting letter reading ever heard, but otherwise her singing here is fine, as is Fabiano’s. Earlier in the evening, he ably performed “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” and she, a lustrous “Addio del passato.”

Pelly interpolates scenes and changes others at will. The performance begins with a funereal procession, umbrellas straight out of Wilder. During Violetta’s orgiastic party, she removes Flora’s (Jennifer Panara) panties before copulating with Alfredo. She passes out, and when the guests depart she wakens to find Alfredo gone — a clue to begin her marathon series of arias, truncated here.

Regardless of this critic’s opinion of the Pelly production, Friday’s audience enthusiastically received La Traviata. It receives an additional performance on August 22. The season closes August 24.

Plan to attend SFO’s 2014 season, comprising Carmen, Don Pasquale, Fidelio, a double bill of The Impressario and Le Rossignol, and the world premiere of Huang Ro’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

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