Friday, June 19, 2009

La Traviata, San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2009

There are few young-singer programs as successful as those at San Francisco Opera, and the faithful gathered this week to welcome back one of their hotter alumni, soprano Anna Netrebko, who has been busily conquering the opera world. The occasion was a "Traviata" that excelled in spots but seemed rather lackluster in comparison to SFO's recent productions of "Tosca" and "Porgy and Bess."

Director Marta Domingo took an interesting and apt tack in updating the time setting from 1850s France to 1920s America, sending Violetta from courtesan to flapper without much consternation, and bringing her onstage in a stylish 1929 Buick. Domingo also had a lot of fun designing the lavish art-deco party set for Act II, providing a dazzling backdrop for the silent-movie costumery and dance divertissements, including some quirky era choreography by Kitty McNamee and a wonderfully athletic dance solo from Jekyns Pelaez as the matador.

The third-act set, an astral background of hanging lamps filtered through falling snow, received a few snickers from the purists, but to hell with the purists, I liked it. It also matched well with Netrebko's marvelously understated approach to Violetta's swansong, "Addio del passato," over a sensitively played layering of strings from Donald Runnicles and his orchestra. Netrebko played with the dynamics and phrasing with great facility, a contrast with the drier approach she applied to "Sempre libera" in the first act. I enjoyed the overlong pause that she and Runnicles applied before the opening cadenza of that piece (building anticipation among the aficionados) but was disappointed that she opted out of the final high E-flat.

As Alfredo, tenor Charles Castronovo was good but not spectacular, and did have his moments, notably when Alfredo denounces Violetta before the partygoers and throws a wad of cash at her to pay for their time together. He also sang beautifully in the final duet with Violetta, "Parigi, o cara."

Baritone Dwayne Croft delivered an able Germont, though I have yet to see a singer who can make up for this character's gross schmuckiness. It doesn't help matters that Croft failed to deliver the usual passion of "Di Provenza, il mar, il suol," Germont's salute to his family's homeland. And might I add a postscript compliment to lighting designer Mark McCollough, for the flickering effect in the autumn trees of Alfredo's country home. Well done!

Through July 5, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Image: Anna Netrebko as Violetta Valery. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

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