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'La Traviata,' a prima donna’s delight

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By Alicia Solomon

Soprano Natalie Dessay’s highly anticipated first outing as Violetta (the title character in “La Traviata,”) opened the season at the Santa Fe Opera Friday night. Verdi’s consumptive Camille is required to progress from stratospheric fioritura in the first act, to lyrico spinto fullness by the middle of the second; two extremes difficult to encompass in one voice. Nevertheless, “Traviata” is finally and utterly a prima donna vehicle and even admittedly mediocre vocalists have made a success on sheer strength of personality.

In a triumphant performance that began stirringly with the National Anthem, Dessay brought both personality and vocal prowess in abundance. Although her instrument is smaller than many great dramatic sopranos indelibly associated with the role, she knew how to husband it and when to pour it on; in the big moments, the fullness was there and even in the small ones, we always heard her beautifully. (Her high Eb at the end of “Sempre libera” was magnificent.) And her acting is as complete and nuanced as her vocalism: she utterly embodied Violetta’s mercurial nature. Bravissima! We were on our feet as soon as the lights came back up, catching the tiny diva still on stage. Maestro Chaslin kept the orchestra deliciously (suspiciously?) light and graceful - mille grazie! It can be done! Not surprisingly with an artist of such magnitude, the seldom-heard extra verses of “Ah, forse’ lui” and “Addio, del passato” were also included.

Violetta’s wardrobe started with “I-Love-Lucy” carrot-orange hair that perfectly proclaimed her electric persona. A magnificent strapless fuchsia meringue in the first act, with matching knee-high stiletto boots, gave way to second act country wear of mannish brown trousers and white boyfriend shirt, open over a lacy cream camisole. For Flora’s gypsy-themed party, she appeared in one-shouldered black elegance, draped with a fringed, black-and-white floral shawl.

The set consisted of countless boxes of varying sizes, some raked and interspersed with stairs, creating almost too many different pathways for characters to crawl, run, leap and otherwise wander about the stage, when both the drama and the music would often have been better served by simply standing and singing.

In Act I, the chorus itself was the only decoration, with women in off-the-shoulder ball gowns of muted rose, gold and green. Act II’s country idyll was suggested by draping a downstage area in moss/grass and adding a couple of trees; while Flora’s fateful soire was defined by a huge, lavender art-deco chandelier, with deep reds and bright salmon added in the womens’ gorgeous gowns.

In an eerily effective scene change into the final act, to the haunting strains of the entr’act so similar to the overture, those women gather around Violetta, obscuring her and slowly passing around over their heads the camellias from her hair and then her dress; while the men drape all the boxes in sheets, with a large raked platform serving as a deathbed.

In his SFO debut, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, as Alfredo, was inconsistent in the first two acts, but found his stride after intermission and sang the second half with ringing, fiery style. Second year apprentices Emily Fons as Violetta’s sparkling friend Flora, and Jennifer Jakob as faithful maid Annina, made good showings and gained invaluable experience.

I must say, there were two specific details I most heartily did not like, which both belied the text the character was singing or had just sung. Voletta’s opening phrases of “Sempre libera” were sung crawling across a long block towards center stage. Ugh! What’s that about? And as she draws her final breaths at the end, all her loved ones back away so that she dies alone instead of in their arms – wrong! But these are small blemishes in a production of monumental artistic proportions. Baritone Laurent Naouri’s Germont was simply breathtaking. His rich, focused baritone bloomed gloriously at the top and his evidently natural tendency against superfluous movement helped define his character, contrasting with the sometimes obtuse stage direction. When he did move, it was full of contained passion that looked and felt real. But the palpable emotional connection between Naouri and his wife, Dessay, on top of their obvious professional talents, kept me utterly mesmerized through Act II. It was one of the most enthralling performances I have ever seen. If you already have tickets, don’t let anything keep you away!