San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti is the hero of the company’s “La Traviata” revival, which opened in the War Memorial Opera House Wednesday for a monthlong run.
Verdi's drama, passion and pathos pour visibly and palpably out of the Italian maestro. That was not consistently the case for the singers and orchestra, with the notable exception of concertmaster Kay Stern's beautiful solos.
With Wednesday’s performance being the first in the sixth revival of John Copley’s handsome 1987 production (and the fact that “La Traviata” has been presented in the War Memorial in 31 series since 1924), the opera has tremendous staying power.
At the same time, it’s a challenge to make a warhorse fresh and exciting.
The most appealing parts on opening night were the ethereal Prelude; the moment when Violetta (Nicole Cabell, replacing Sonya Yoncheva) gave in to the demand to leave her lover Alfredo (Saimir Pirgu) and the dramatic end of the party scene.
And Cabell’s affecting performance of Violetta's death lit up the fourth act.
At other times –- in large stretches during the three-hour run (with two intermissions, not one) -– the business-like, acceptable performance was not as consistently memorable as opera should be.
Despite the beautiful music, the drama and tragedy surrounding a courtesan and her true love who are separated, reunited and thwarted by death, did not resonate, mostly as a result of shaky performances.
Pirgu and Vladimir Stoyanov (as Alfredo's father) both projected underpowered singing voices, but were unconvincing in their portrayals. Pirgu singing to the audience in the Act 4 climactic reunion with Violetta was especially galling. Blame for that probably should be shared with revival director Laurie Feldman.
On the other hand, Cabell was excellent in the difficult death scene, so perhaps the individual singer's responsibility outweighs the director's. The lack of chemistry in Act 1 was definitely Pirgu's doing -– or rather, undoing.
Stoyanov, distant and wooden, ruined the opera's pivotal duet with Violetta in which the villain needs to show elements of humanity. (It will be welcome to experience Quinn Kelsey as the father in the second cast, and, more importantly, Stephen Costello as Alfredo.)
The orchestra, which is routinely outstanding, played routinely on Wednesday. Even the first violins at points fell behind and then had to catch up -– not enough rehearsals?
So far, it's an on-and-off production. Chances are it will get better.
Presented by San Franciso Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 17, June 20, July 5 and July 11; 7:30 p.m. June 25 and July 8; 2 p.m. June 29 and July 13
Tickets: $24 to $379
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com