Verdi’s “Traviata” Thrills with Great Singers & Staging—at SF Opera
Director Shawna Lucey’s Sensitive Scenes Stir #MeToo
by Barry David Horwitz
When Violetta (divine Pretty Yende) has been rejected publicly, all the elegantly dressed Parisian women flock around her. They have been having spats with their men, too, and they rally around Violetta, despite her reputation. The women in bright gowns circle her, protectively, in a magnificent tableau. All the women stand by the “fallen” woman. The men back off, rejected and surprised.
The SF Opera’s 2022 La Traviata brings joy and insight—a once in a lifetime experience. In 1853, Giuseppe Verdi has seen through the facade of polite society, witnessed the fate of a Parisian courtesan, and based his opera on the play by Alexandre Dumas. Verdi uses the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave to make his own indelible musical statement.
On the vast Opera House stage, Director Shawna Lucey has created scenes of delicacy and power—magnificent ballrooms, high French windows, and beautiful silky gowns—all speaking of immense Parisian wealth. But Violetta, La Traviata,”the fallen woman,” is slowly dying of consumption, exploitation, and rejection by the spoiled elite. Lucey vividly contrasts the lavish parties with Violetta’s victimization at their hands.
Verdi’s gorgeous score tells a story popularized in Pretty Woman, where a sex worker breaks out and says “Me Too!” Faced with sexual exploitation by smug middle-class men, Violetta becomes a heroine we all can love.
And what a heroine we get—the superb South African soprano Pretty Yende strikingly evokes the young and sympathetic Violetta Valéry, the Parisian courtesan. Yende brings down the house with her deeply sensitive and emotional Violetta. Her “Sempre Libera” aria is breathtaking and her sensitive acting proves unforgettable.
As her lover Alfredo, Johnathan Tetelman makes the perfect spoiled aristocrat. A Chilean tenor, Tetelman’s powerful voice rings both emotional and robust. His physical presence evokes raw emotion. Together, Yende and Tetelman take this Traviata to new heights.
The stirring Italian baritone Simone Piazzola plays Alfonso’s father, Giorgio Germont. When M. Germont begs Violetta to leave his son to benefit their snobbish family, Piazzola delivers a touching emotional plea behind which he conceals a cruel double standard. Piazzola’s lush voice and subtle manipulation make his selfishness seem almost reasonable.
Conductor Eun Sun Kim, a hero in her own right, brilliantly leads this extraordinary cast and the acclaimed SF Opera Orchestra in Verdi’s rich score.
In a night where everything works, much credit goes to SF Opera’s design team: Production Designer Robert Innes Hopkins, Lighting Designer Michael Clark, and Choreographer John Heginbotham. Their brilliant work puts the hypocrisy of the cynical Parisians on grand display.
Gender-queering is the order of the day, as a man in a tutu plays with a courtesan’s feet. And a bi-sex quartet prances, each dressed half in tux and half in red ball gown.
The famed “naughty party” with fabulous costumes and rich colors, exposes their exploitation of pliant women and the offstage poor people. Even as Violetta leaves half of her meager money to the poor, we realize that the delicate touches highlight the virtue of the so-called “fallen” woman. There’s a lot to see and learn from this lovely, lush, and heartfelt new Traviata. A masterpiece.
La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, directed by Shawna Lucey, conducted by Eun Sun Kim, music performed by The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, at San Francisco Opera. Info: SFOpera.com – to Saturday, December 3, 2022.
Cast: Pretty Yende, Talor Raven, Timothy Murray, Philip Skinner, Adam Lau, Edward Graves, Jonathan Tetelmann, Elisa Sunshine, Michael Jankosky, Simone Piazzola, Willam Lee Bryan, and Andrew Pardini.
Banner photo: Pretty Yende (Violetta), Taylor Raven (Flora), & SF Opera Chorus. Photos: Cory Weaver