Monday, October 2, 2017

SFO’s Verdi: the Action Remains in the Ensemble

So much can be said about the ensemble work in the current San Francisco Opera production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata that there is no need to dwell again on any of the shortcomings of the principal vocalists. Yesterday afternoon I returned to my favorite elevated vantage point, which provides me with an excellent view of the conductor and most of the orchestra. From this perspective it was possible to appreciate not only Verdi’s skills in instrumentation but also Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s realization of those skills.

It has already been observed that the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven may very well be behind the very first measures of the score. Indeed, the ability to observe the physical manifestations of the interplay among the four primary string sections (sometimes including the basses in the mix) does much to reinforce the validity of the story that Verdi used those quartets at bedtime reading. Furthermore, there are several judicious appearances of reduced or solo string playing, reflecting a sensitivity that can be blunted by a visual experience that is overly opulent, even when the vocalists are at their best. Indeed, the solo work by Concertmaster Kay Stern provided the true emotional substance behind Aurelia Florian’s spoken account of Violetta Valéry reading the “confessional” letter from Giorgio Germont in the final act.

My earlier dispatch credited Luisotti for his subtle dynamic contours; but that overlooks the fact that the overall dynamic range is almost as wide as what opera-goers previously experienced in this season’s earlier production of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra.” However, where Strauss drew upon one of the largest ensembles ever to fill an orchestra pit, Verdi reinforced his instrumental power with that of a full chorus. At the conclusion of the second scene of the second act, those choral forces must negotiate wide swings between the chillingly hushed and the full-out fortissimo. Ian Robertson prepared the SFO Chorus to respond as perfectly as one could expect to Luisotti’s control of those wide swings. Thus, while the underlying narrative is wallowing in its most (at least in terms of the number of characters involved) melodramatic, the blend of instruments and chorus summon up some of the most intensely felt emotions that Verdi set down in his score.

The conclusion of the second act of La Traviata (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

This is not to overlook the lapses in that score or to apologize for them. However, as a conductor Luisotti has a knack for dwelling on the virtues while letting the lapses pass with the flow of the narrative. For the most part, his technique does much to keep the attentive listener engaged, although even the most sympathetic listener may find it hard to avoid feeling that the first encounter that Giorgio Germont (Artur Ruciński) has with his son Alfredo (Atalla Ayan) might benefit from a few substantial cuts. This is where Shawna Lucey’s realization of John Copley’s staging must be taken into consideration, but that argument has already been raised.

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