Last Friday the San Francisco Opera premiered a beautiful new production of Verdi's 1852 opera, La Traviata, its first in over 30 years. The traditional production design by Robert Innes Hopkins is lavish, airy and features large, curving back walls that help singers project their voices, and the costumes are brilliant. The direction by Shawna Lucey is also interesting as it is made explicitly clear, with money being showered on female choristers in the opening moments, that the settings in Act I and Act III are essentially upper-class 19th Century Parisian bordellos. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)
This may be the first La Traviata I have seen that made me cry, which had everything to do with the chemistry between the two young, rising leads, South African soprano Pretty Yende as Violetta and American tenor Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo. Their duets in the first act were so gentle, musically supportive, and loving that my heart cracked in the first 15 minutes. Tetelman sang his young romantic role almost conversationally, except when the music demanded he belt it out which he did quite beautifully, and his diction was amazing. I don't speak Italian but understood almost every word he sang. Yende started off sounding underpowered in the first act, but she was conserving herself for the almost impossible-to-sing role, with four different voice requirements for each act. She was superb and created a real, sympathetic character over the course of the opera.
One of my least favorite baritone characters in all of opera is Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, who strips the opera dead of all its joy early in Act II when he demands and then pleads for Violetta to break it off with his son, the love of her life, for the sake of his family's honor. Simone Piazzola has a great operatic voice but his characterization was deeply dull and the only word I could make out in his ramblings was "piangi [weep]."
The chorus was having an evident blast in their shiny new costumes being lascivious party people. There were synchronization problems with the orchestra under Music Director Eun Sun Kim in the first two performances, but they weren't major. The conducting and playing of the orchestra throughout was some of the most delicate and lovely Verdi I have ever heard in this house, and the glorious finale in Act III for principals and chorus was a reminder, once again, that Giuseppe Verdi was a musical god. The young Adler fellows in the cast also had a great night, particularly Timothy Murray as the Marchese d'Obigny having fun in a pink tutu at Flora's joint.
Act IV is a study in pathos as Violetta sings while dying of tuberculosis, and guilt-ridden daddy Giorgio finally tells the truth to Alfredo who rushes back in time for his true love to die in his arms. Again, the two singers connected so sweetly that the cliches and the cruelty of the tale were transformed.