The hero at last night’s opening of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) was conductor (and Music Director) Nicola Luisotti. Even for those who thought they knew every note of this opera, Luisotti disclosed nuances of detail that brought more dramatism to this musical interpretation of La Dame aux camélias, the play by Alexandre Dumas, fils than librettist Francesco Maria Piave could ever be capable of mustering. Luisotti achieved this feat through a meticulous command of detail in dynamic levels, with particular attention to the softer side of the balance. Even in the opening measures of the Prelude, he managed to keep the hideous oompah of winds and brass subdued enough to allow the “traviata” motif in the strings to glisten with a rarely-heard delicacy. By the time we get to the fourth act, whose prelude revisits the very first measures of the opera, we are in a domain of quietly understated subtly for Violetta Valéry’s final hours.
It is said that Verdi kept copies of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven by the side of the bed. He would study them every night before going to sleep. We tend to assume that he was working on building up his chops for counterpoint and getting his head around some of Beethoven’s more adventurous approaches to harmonic progression. However, when it comes to the late quartets, some of the finest moments are those of such serene quietude that time seems to stand still. I have to wonder whether or not Beethoven may have guided Verdi’s masterful account of that last act of La Traviata.
Luisotti’s most important partner in creating such an intensely affecting interpretation of this operatic war-horse was soprano Nicole Cabell. In her characterization of Violetta, she clearly accepted Luisotti’s preference for soft dynamic levels and relished it for all it was worth. Where lesser productions often allow the fourth act to wallow in maudlin melodrama, Cabell used her command of singing piano to give an almost clinical account of a woman with only a few more breaths left in her body.
Set designer John Conklin should also be credited for bringing impact to these final moments. After three acts of visual feasts of “the good life” in mid-nineteenth-century France, we are in an almost claustrophobic setting of a barely furnished room and a view of Annina (Erin Johnson) trying to keep watch over her mistress that seems to have at least vague intimations of Edvard Munch’s The Sick Child. This radical shift of Conklin’s vision perfectly matches the nuanced dynamic levels through which both Luisotti and Cabell tease out Verdi’s talent for creating one of opera’s most memorable moments.
Still, one has to wish that the two major male singers, Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo Germont and Vladimir Stoyanov as Alfredo’s father Giorgio, had been as attentive to these subtleties as Cabell had been. Both had solid vocal qualities in the tenor and baritone ranges, respectively. However, each seemed to have his own limitations in matters of precise accounts of pitch; and neither could command the softer dynamic levels that Cabell summoned with the first signs of her illness in the first act and running all the way through to her final breath.
While this production by John Copley has been with SFO since 1987, it remains one of the most understanding interpretations that gets at the humanity behind the melodrama; and Luisotti’s musical direction could not have done a better job in capturing the nature of that humanity.