If changes in social mores since mid-19th-century Paris render aspects of La Traviata awkwardly dated, the passion and poignancy of its star-crossed lovers transcends both geography and generations. Based on the 1848 Dumas fils novel and his 1852 play, La Dame aux Camelias, La Traviata premiered in Venice in 1853where it was an unmitigated disaster. The modern dress production broke with traditional operatic period costumes and the extremely overweight soprano playing a heroine dying of consumption surely did little to win over the already challenged audience. (One can’t help but to wonder whether those audiences were listening to one of the most irresistible scores in all of the opera repertory.) A year later, another production in the same house moved the action back to the 17th century, and, presumably with more appropriate casting, was well received. Today it is one of the most popular operas in the repertory.
Alfredo, a young man from a respectable family falls madly in love with a courtesan, Violetta. He prevails over Violetta’sdeclared preference for a sybaritic life (the great aria Sempre libera: "..Ever free, flitting from joy to joy/May my hours forever flee in sweet pleasure’s company.") and they move to a country house together. The arrangement presents a clear threat to Alfredo’s family, in particular to his sister’s betrothal. Alfredo’s father comes to see Violetta and pleads with her to give Alfredo up. Anguished, she nonetheless agrees, leaves the house, and later lies to Alfredo that she loves another, in order to deflect his ardor. They are reunited only on Violetta’s deathbed.
San Francisco Opera, as part of a three opera "Verdi Celebration," has revived an old production, traditional in style and placed back into the original mid-19th century setting. (To a twenty-first century audience, the period in which La Traviata is set shouldn’t matter much so long as it is well into the past–it might seem strange in a contemporary setting which would render the social pressures on the Germonts somewhat quaint.) The physical production is serviceable, though neither particularly visually pleasing nor interesting to the eye in any way.
They might well call this outing "The Patricia Racette Show." With three important roles (the soprano, the tenor Alfredo, the baritone Germont), the ideal production would have three strong singers, but ideal productions are few and far between. A Traviata without an adequate Violetta, though, is unthinkable. The Alfredo here, Stephen Mark Brown, has the dashing looks and the passion for the role, but his tenor seemed dauntingly small and uneven through the first three acts, while somehow gaining more satisfying strength only for the final emotion-laden duet. Christopher Robertson’s Germont might charitably be labeled sincere, but he was missing both the vocal power and emotional juice to put over what should be some of the most moving music in the baritone repertoire.
So it was left to Ms. Racette to carry the evening–and carry it she did. After a somewhat dry opening, and apparently holding back to find some sort of balance with Mr. Brown, she opened up beautifully in the Sempre libera, producing elegant music delivered with supple dexterity and an appropriately complex mixture of vulnerability and carefree abandon.
Through the balance of the evening Racette remained in prime voice and dramatic high gear, never overplaying where lesser artists might easily have descended into scenery chewing. Even against the uninspired second act appeal by Germont, her interpretation of Violetta’s capitulation, her sacrifice of the only love of her life, was credible and moving. Through the confrontational third act and the tragic fourth she further deepened her characterization, lifting the entire proceedings, on the strength of her performance alone, to that level of operatic drama that keeps the patrons coming back for more.