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Reconsidering San Francisco Opera’s ‘first round’ of Verdi vocal soloists

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Yesterday afternoon’s presentation of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata at the War Memorial Opera House by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) saw the final performances of the “first cast” soloists: soprano Nicole Cabell in the “title role” of Violetta Valéry, tenor Saimir Pirgu as Violetta’s lover Alfredo Germont, and baritone Vladimir Stoyanov, making his SFO debut, as Alfredo’s father Giorgio. My impression on opening night was that Cabell was the one soloist who was sensitive to the nuanced approach that Music Director Nicola Luisotti had taken in conducting Verdi’s score, while both Pirgu and Stoyanov left much to be desired. This led to an accusation in the Comments section of a bias in favor of American singers. I was therefore curious as to how both tenor and baritone had progressed after a month of performing their respective roles.

What was most evident about Pirgu yesterday afternoon was that he was more comfortable on the stage. As a result he seemed in a better position to find the right balance between his attentiveness to his dramatic setting and to Luisotti in the pit. There was more expressive shape to his voice, but some of the problems with pitch were still there.

Pitch is clearly a sensitive and delicate problem. I would therefore like to offer a brief aside on the topic. While attending a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I once heard a violinist attribute an observation about pitch to Dorothy DeLay, one of the most important violinists to have taught at the Juilliard School. DeLay supposedly once said that no violinist ever hits pitch exactly; the good ones know how to adjust faster than the audience can hear the difference.

I would propose that what holds for string players holds just as much for vocalists. In the presence of a useful reference pitch, Pirgu could align his pitch as skillfully as the best of his colleagues. Furthermore, he seemed to have a solid command of the source of that reference pitch, whether from another vocalist or from the orchestra pit. As a result, his a cappella duo cadenzas with Cabell could not have been better. Unfortunately, he also had to contend with a few solo a cappella passages; and on those few occasions his command of pitch lost its certainty.

On the other hand his responsiveness to Luisotti’s nuances was never as keen as Cabell’s. This was most evident in the final act. As I previously observed, Cabell’s command of soft dynamic levels was, in many respects, far more impressive than her ability to summon up an intense climax. As a result she could use dynamic level to lend credibility to her presentation of Violetta’s last hour of life, always working with Luisotti to prevent the pathos of the situation from deteriorating into bathos.

Unfortunately, Pirgu could not maintain the same control. Even allowing for the fact that Alfredo is clearly distraught when he encounters Violetta, Pirgu came too close to reducing it all to throwing a tantrum. His side of his final duet with Cabell was punched out with such force that it shattered the chilling mood Cabell had established so well in her chemistry with Luisotti.

While Pirgu had improved noticeably for the better part of yesterday’s performance, there was little sense of change in Stoyanov. His pitch was somewhat more secure, but there was little sense that he was invested in his role. In many respect Giorgio is a far more challenging role than Alfredo. At a literary level his is the most complex character, having to reconcile opposing forces on his life and the decisions he makes. While Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave tried to reduce Giorgio to a cardboard stereotype, whose only function is to complicate the relationship between Violetta and Alfredo, many of the great baritones have done impressive work in endowing Giorgio with the foundation of humanity that his character deserves. I would guess that John Copley appreciated this depth in Giorgio’s character, as did Laurie Feldman in her realization of Copley’s vision for this production. Unfortunately, Stoyanov never seemed to quite “get it,” which undermined some of the most critical moments in the unfolding of the opera’s narrative.

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