Review: Runnicles’ Conducting, Netrebko’s Glamorous Violetta Inspire San Francisco Opera “Traviata” – June 28, 2009

The final assignment as Musical Director for the San Francisco Opera for Conductor Donald Runnicles, whose tenure  ends with the company’s 2008-09 season, was Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Runnicles conducted six performances, five for the Violetta of Anna Netrebko, with a final one scheduled with Allyn Perez. I attended the last of Netrebko’s five performances.

Although Runnicles is particularly associated with Wagner, Puccini and 20th century opera,  in San Francisco he has sampled the Verdi canon, from early Verdi (“Macbeth” and “Luisa Miller”) to his later works (“Ballo in Maschera”, “Simon Boccanegra”, both the French and Italian versions of “Don Carlos”, “Aida”, “Otello” and “Falstaff”). However, in his 19 years of conducting in San Francisco, he never had conducted any of the three great “Middle Verdi” operas.

For the summer season of 2009, which included Runnicles conducting a single performance of the Verdi Requiem and six performances of “Traviata”, the 58th opera he conducted in San Francisco, Runnicles was exclusively a Verdian.

[Below: Donald Runnicles, conductor of “La Traviata”, his final opera as Musical Director, San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on photograph courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Whether by coincidence or as part of a grand design, his “La Traviata” performances occur just two and a half months before his successor Nicola Luisotti’s scheduled opening of the San Francisco Opera’s 2009-2010 season with Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. The arc of Runnicles’ departure with “Trav” and Luisotti’s arrival with “Trov” may well suggest that Verdian opera, that had seemed shortchanged in San Francisco earlier in the millenium, is returning to its place of honor at the War Memorial Opera House.

The production was borrowed from the Los Angeles Opera, which owns two physical productions of “Traviata”, one of which, by Giovanni Agostinucci, was revived by the Southern California company for a run that overlapped the earlier performances in San Francisco.  My review  of the Los Angeles first night cast in Agostinucci’s production was most enthusiastic (see  A New Verdian Golden Age? – Poplavskaya, Giordano in Elegant Agostinucci “Traviata”: Los Angeles Opera, May 21, 2009).

Those who saw the L. A. performances or read my review  will understand why I believe that a large number of the San Francisco opera patrons, having seen “what’s out there” during the general directorship of Pamela Rosenberg, would have preferred the traditional and very beautiful Agostinucci sets to the somewhat minimalist sets in Marta Domingo’s fanciful Jazz Age timeshift.

However, there were other factors for San Francisco Opera’s choice of the lighter Domingo production (assuming that the Los Angeles Opera would have let the Agostinucci sets out of its possession and would have let the elder company make such a choice). Most important was that the “Traviata” was the vehicle for the triumphant return to San Francisco of a diva with an early association with the company – the Russian superstar Anna Netrebko.

It was her performances in the title role of Massenet’s “Manon” in Los Angeles (and later at the Berlin Staatsoper), timeshifted to  Paris in the early 1950s that created a sensation.  To this day, Robert Millard’s production photo of Netrebko as Manon in the Hotel des Transylvanie, dressed like Marilyn Monroe, is one of the most popular images in the brief history of opera photographs on the Internet. (See: “Thriller”: Paterson Links with Netrebko, Villazon and Domingo in L. A. “Manon” – October 5, 2006.)

(It is by far the most visited image of any ever displayed on the website and can be seen through the hyperlink cited above.) One expects Terrence McCarthy’s image of Netrebko’s stunning entrance in the classic limousine (with a high kick of her leg to the audience before she steps from the conveyance), also to win many admirers.

[Below: Violetta (Anna Netrebko) steps from her limousine; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Much of Netrebko’s early career in the United States is associated with the San Francisco Opera, where she participated in the Merola program for young artists, while starring in the main San Francisco Opera season in several Russian rarities – Lyudmila in Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (1995), Louisa in Prokofiev’s “Betrothal in a Monastery” (1998) and Marfa in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride” (2000), as well as such traditional fare as Nanetta in Verdi’s “Falstaff” and Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.

The rise of Netrebko to superstardom has been accompanied by an obvious increase in the size of her voice (her slightly risqué quip about a microphone in her diaphragm is widely quoted on the Internet.)

But she also has emerged as a superb actress, confident in her abilities to project the full range of a woman’s emotions, through vocal modulation, through gesture, and through facial expressions.

A friend who is an admirer of the great mid-20th century diva, Maria Callas, and who saw the first four of Netrebko’s Violettas, related to me that one could see Netrebko’s interpretation of the part evolve from performance to performance.  Those who are fortunate to see her are in the presence of one of the great singing actresses in operatic history.

[Below: Anna Netrebko is Violetta in Marta Domingo’s “Jazz Age La Traviata”; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Her Alfredo was Charles Castronovo, a favorite tenor of this website.  Castronovo’s performance may be considered from different viewpoints. If one were to rate it solely from the quality of his singing, it was praiseworthy. His second act solo aria De miei bollenti spirito was beautifully expressive and the accompanying cabaletta was dramatically effective.

However, an appreciation of his stylish and beautiful leggiero voice  does not prevent one from having reservations about his assaying a role that, especially at the War Memorial Opera House with its open orchestra pit, should be assigned to a spinto tenor.

Castronovo’s attractive light lyric voice, was used to great success in two Mozart roles in this house, Tamino in “The Magic Flute” (2003) and Don Ottavio in “Don Giovanni” (see review in June 2008 archives). He also was a striking Nadir in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” 2004, (his role debut, which he repeated at San Diego Opera (see Castronovo, Siurina Lead Magical San Diego Opera “Pearl Fishers” – May 9, 2008).

But these three roles utilize smaller orchestras for the Mozart operas and lighter instrumentation for Nadir’s solos. In “Traviata” his voice was heard to best effect when accompanied only by the offstage banda or the a capella portion of his duet with Netrebko in the first act, or in the subdued orchestration of the final scene, such as his duet Parigi, o cara, again with Netrebko.

At other times the Verdi-sized orchestra playing in an open pit in the 3200 seat War Memorial proved challenging to a voice, for whose weight the part of Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff” still seems more appropriate. (For the record, I also felt that Rolando Villazon, the last San Francisco Alfredo (2003), was also challenged by this house.)

However San Francisco Opera, at least for the past half century, does not have much history of casting spinto tenors as Alfredo. Not one of THE THREE TENORS, during their heydey in San Francisco ever sang Alfredo in this house, with Franco Bonisolli (1969) the only undisputed spinto singing the role during that time when the presence of great tenors for these roles seemed the rule rather than the exception. 

There were compensating advantages, however, in casting Castronovo. He was most believable as an ardent suitor of a worldly woman, was an expressive actor, whose acting style matched nicely with Netrebko’s, and, for those who prefer singers playing father and son to have a family resemblance, did seem plausibly related to Dwayne Croft, who played his father, Giorgio.

[Below: Charles Castronovo as Alfredo Germont; based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the Sa Francisco Opera.]

Croft proved to be a persuasive Elder Germont, with a large voice whose previous Verdi in San Francisco was as Ford in “Falstaff” (2001).  (In those “Falstaffs” it was Netrebko who played  Nannetta to Croft’s Ford.)

His most notable role in San Francisco was that of Robert E. Lee in the world premiere production of Glass’ “Appomattox”. (See The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007.)

[Below: Giorgio Germont (Dwayne Croft) is moved by Violetta (Anna Netrebko); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Notes on the Performance

Verdi’s conceptualization of “Traviata” as a contemporary drama, to be performed in modern dress, was a radical idea that offended the censors who controlled the early performances of the opera.  But this was a time of great geopolitical change in Italy with the dynasties the censors intended to protect losing their influence there within a few years, if surviving at all.

Before too long, Verdi got his way. But what was Parisian modern dress 157 years ago when “Traviata” was written, now would be considered museum pieces. Occasionally, producers wish to update “Traviata” in ways that restore the sense of radical newness.

Marta Domingo’s production moves it forward in time, although to a decade that actually is closer in time to Violetta’s 1850s than to the 21st century.  Domingo revels in visual details for her post-Great War ‘flapper” era sets. A narrow encircling proscenium in art deco style serves as a border that brings unity to each of the four disparate scenes.

Anyone staging “Traviata” gets to plan two party scenes, so that the crux of the production revolves around the art deco images of the first and third acts. (In both L. A. “Traviata” productions, Agostinucci’s and Domingo’s, the third act becomes Act II Scene II (eliminating the traditional intermission) and the fourth act becomes the third.)

Once the luxury car provides the grand entrance for Violetta on an uncluttered stage with a single streetlamp,  the Baron Douphol (Dale Travis), takes command of the arrival and garaging of the limousine. (Travis is at his best playing fussy middle-aged French noblemen, such as this baron and Monsieur de Bretigny in Massenet’s “Manon”.)

[Below: Marta Domingo’s set for the beginning of Act I; edited image, based on a James Pomitcher photograph from San Diego Opera Scenic Studios.]

Then  the mid-stage curtains open to reveal a representation of an art deco room dominated by a gaudy chandelier, buttressed with ropes and tassels and complemented by period furniture. A bartender uses the old style cocktail shakers to mix drinks. Among the first act party-goers, Austin Kness who plays the Marquis d’Obigny stands out.

When the party guests withdraw, we observe that  the room in which the party was held also is used by Violetta as her bedchamber. Annina (Renee Tatum) helps Violetta out of her party dress into a house coat she wears over her lingerie.

After Netrebko sings an affecting Ah, fors e lui, she kicks her shoe high into the curtains and twirls in several circles. She seems confused when she hears Alfredo refrain during her Sempre libera!

In another context Producer/Stage Director David McVicar famously asked, “Where is the sex in “Traviata”?  Domingo comes up with an answer – if not sex, at least the introduction to foreplay. Just after Alfredo’s offstage voice is heard, Castronovo appears onstage in her bedroom (a rendezvous not found in Verdi’s libretto) holding Violetta’s camellia, and Violetta pulls him into her overstuffed couch bed as the act ends.

The country house is a modest affair, represented by a half dozen trees interlaced with a netting to whose spiral patterns glitter is attached.

[Below: Marta Domingo’s sets for Violetta’s country house; edited image, based on a Pomitscher photograph from the San Diego Opera Scenic Studios.]

The principal plot driver in the second act is the arrival of Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont.  In his personal mission to break up the affair between his son and Violetta, Germont must be convincing both to his son’s amour and to the audience.

Here the acting instincts of Netrebko, Croft, and afterward Castronovo made this scene absorbing. Netrebko, sitting sullenly at Violetta’s table with head slightly bowed, sings of her life as a “fallen woman” before Alfredo’s love transformed her. Affected by her honesty, Croft makes a quick sign of the cross, then wipes his brow.

Certainly, Marta Domingo’s feel for the material provided a logical starting point for directing these singing actors, but one senses that Netrebko fully becomes the character she is portraying and that Croft and Castronovo have become “in the moment” with her, reacting with purely natural instincts.

Since Domingo was stage director for both the Los Angeles and San Francisco “Traviatas” and the traditional cut of Giorgio Germont’s cabaletta that follows Di Provenza il mar, il suol was opened (and, of course staged) in Los Angeles, then it was likely Runnicles’ decision to make the cut in San Francisco. Here, my vote with Domingo and L. A.’s conductor Gershon decision to restore the music, even conceding that  the sentiments expressed are repetitive and no one argues that this is among Verdi’s best creations.

It is the third act party that unleashes Domingo’s imagination. Although the party is on the main floor, there is an art deco mezzanine (and the 1920s-style decoration we now call a “disco ball”).

[Below: Marta Domingo’s sets for Flora Bevoix’ party; edited image, based on a James Pomitcher photograph from San Diego Opera Scenic Studio.]

On the mezzanine an homage to a famous New Orleans jazz combo takes place (reminding us that before Luciano Pavarotti’s iconic white handkerchief, Louis Armstrong used a similar accessory to a similar theatrical effect.)

I’m not sure that any “La Traviata” stage director looks forward to staging the ballet dances that are performed at Flora Bevoix’ party, in which the action is suspended while the audience observes first a group of dancing gypsy fortune tellers and then the dance ensemble portrays a matador’s encounter with a bull.

Colombian dancer Jekyns Pelaez, in his debut season, was the Matador. Here, the flapper era theme worked against the material that Verdi wrote for the dances. Kitty McNamee, the choreographer, who presided over a successful flamenco style dance in the Los Angeles “Traviata”, seemed to resign herself to a slinky caricature of flapper dance. Alas, Verdi and Slinky are not a comfortable fit.

[Below: Jekyns Pelaez as the Matador, and  his fellow dancers at Flora’s party; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The mezzanine is simply an elaborate set dressing, with no dramatic purpose. The functional furnishing in the scene is a giant multi-purpose table, on whose tabletop the dancers cavort, the card game between Douphol and Alfredo takes place, onto which Alfredo jumps to throw his winnings at Violetta, and onto which Violetta falls prostrate.

The great trio and chorus commences in which the three principals recognize how thoroughly each of their lives have become intertwined with the other two. They will reassemble in a few weeks at Violetta’s deathbed.

In the final scene, the whole concept of the Jazz Age has seemed to dissipate. A floral couch is the central furnishing of an almost bare room, save dozens of glistening lights in a scrim and strings of lights descending from above. If women’s party gowns changed markedly between the 1850s and 1920s, the suits men wore visiting sick friends and the nightclothes women wore did not.

As the scene opens, snow is falling and Violetta lies on her couch with Annina sleeping at its foot. Netrebko, after reciting Germont’s letter from memory, sings Addio del Passato beautifully, exhibiting superb breath control.

This will be a sometimes surreal scene, with a pantomime of three angels arriving downstage to fit Violetta with robe and wreath and then recede into the shadows until her formal entrance into heaven takes place.

Of course, Alfredo, whether or not it is a conviction deeply held, affirms Violetta’s assertion that she now feels stronger and Netrebko and Castronovo sing of their characters’ plans to return to Paris.

[Below: Alfredo (Charles Castronovo) and Violetta (Anna Netrebko) sing of their returning to Paris; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This being a basically uncut final act, we have the often excised, but here beautifully presented, quintet consisting the principal trio, Annina and Dr Grenvil (Kenneth Kellogg) before the ethereal violins of Violetta’s final moments are heard.

Netrebko’s performance was worth much more than the price of admission, and the conducting of Runnicles made for a spectacular experience. Although there was yet one more performance of the opera to be conducted by the maestro, this final one with Netrebko had a  special feel to it.

When Runnicles, following the opera house’s tradition of having the conductor signal the orchestra to stand to receive the audience applause just before beginning the final act, the orchestra stayed in their seats and applauded him while members of the audience stood in the darkened theater in honor of the conductor.

The vociferous audience applause that followed at opera’s end was heartfelt, with first Netrebko, then Runnicles, receiving standing ovations. The audience left, most knowing they had seen a performance of Violetta for the ages.