Photo by Craig T. Matthew

OPERA SCENE – LA TRAVIATA

PARTY GIRL LEAVES HER LOVER

Verdi’s ever popular romantic opera “La traviata” is generally staged in mid-19th century high- society Paris, the time and place for which it was originally written. The demimonde world of the beautiful courtesan, Violetta, was a lifestyle of elegant parties and flirtations under the patronage of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats of Paris.

San Diego Opera is presenting “La traviata” in an equally flamboyant era of the early 20th century, the time of the legendary Jay Gatsby. The modern update of the conflict among the glamorous Violetta, her lover Alfredo a handsome country Squire and his father who opposes the match for his son, can easily fit into a similar era of carefree festivity among the rich and famous.

This scenario fits the razor-sharp opinion of critic George Bernard Shaw who wrote, “Opera is simply a soprano and a tenor who want to make love and a baritone who prevents it.”  In defense of Violetta’s betrayal of her impassioned young lover, it’s fair to explain she is dying of consumption intensified by her extravagant lifestyle. Alfredo does not realize her inner conflicts of love for him and her need to be under the patronage of a wealthy aristocrat.

Based on a popular novel and a later 1852 play by Alexander Dumas, “The Lady of the Camellias,” or just plain “Camille,” the work had problems passing the French censors due to its immoral content. Young Verdi a year later did not have a personal problem in adapting the play to the opera stage because he had been living with a singer and her two illegitimate children for many years.

With some help from a friendly official, the Dumas play opened to great success. It spawned the premiere of the opera version only one year later. The plot is known to later generations from a popular cinema film called “Camille” starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in 1936.

Dumas and his father were infamous women chasers, often trading mistresses during their escapades in the scandalous gaiety of mid-19th century Parisian social whirl. In fact, Dumas Jr. based his novel on his own liaison with a courtesan called Marie Duplessis, the real-life Violetta. His mistress likewise died of consumption at only age 23 after Dumas had left her because he could not afford her medical needs and extravagant lifestyle.

“La traviata” ended Verdi’s early period of his first 19 operas. It came on the heels of huge successes for “Rigoletto” and “Il trovatore,” both written and premiered in less than two years before “La traviata” was completed. Since the 1853 debut, the opera has been in the standard repertory and among the ten most-performed operas.

The opening performance in Venice was a fiasco due to the miscasting of the principals. Apparently the physical appearance of Violetta was not convincing and Alfredo failed to fit the image of an ardent young lover. The production was shelved until Verdi replaced the artists for an applauded second performance.

The principal artists in this new version of “La traviata” are American soprano Corinne Winters making her SDO debut as Violetta, Jesus Garcia an American tenor in his company debut as Alfredo and American baritone Stephen Powell returning to SDO as Germont, Alfredo’s father.

The conductor David Agler the Artistic Director of the Wexford Festival Opera, principal conductor of the Australian Opera and resident conductor of San Francisco Opera is making his SDO debut.

Also in a company debut, Marta Domingo directs this production that she conceived for Los Angeles and Washington Opera Companies and later revised.

This is the ninth production of “La traviata” by SDO. Previous productions featured famous sopranos Beverly Sills, Diana Soviero, Elizabeth Futral and Anja Hateros. The first Violetta in 1970 was Gilda Cruz-Romo who was just beginning her illustrious career after winning the Metropolitan Opera auditions with a long career on the international opera stage ahead. I had an opportunity to be acquainted while she performed here in 1970 and have kept in touch all these years.

In an earlier interview, Cruz-Romo shared her impressions of an early opportunity to sing a major role. She was one of Walter Herbert’s early discoveries when he was general director of SDO. Spotting a promising talent at the Metropolitan Opera auditions, he signed her up for her debut in the role of Violetta. The catch was that she must sing in English, the company policy in the early years.

“I was fearful that my accent would not do justice to the translation,” the Guadalajara-born star admitted. Her concern was overcome during rehearsals because all of the company personnel were so helpful. Following her SDO debut, Cruz-Romo made her Metropolitan Opera debut later that season.

“La traviata” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 7:00 p.m. Saturday April 22, Tuesday April 25 and Friday April 28; and 2:00 p.m. Sunday April 30. For ticket information, call (619) 533 7000 or visit http://www.sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University

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