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Netrebko's Violetta: Not Consumptive Enough

June 17, 2009

Anna Netrebko's turn as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata at San Francisco Opera is a big deal. The great Russian-Austrian soprano launched her American career at SF Opera in 1995, when, as the age of 24, she made her US debut as Lyudmila in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila. Audiences in the Bay Area feel proud to have played a part in nurturing the singer's formidable talent. So, unsurprisingly, every performance of La Traviata in which Netrebko is appearing, is sold out.

By the third act of the company's performance of Verdi's opera last night, however, quite a few seats in the orchestra had been vacated. There are always a bunch of strange individuals who would rather avoid the after-performance traffic than stay for the denouement. But I regrettably couldn't blame the premature departures on this occasion and think that the seats may have been vacated for reasons other than congestion on the roads.

Set in the 1920s, Marta Domingo's production (originally created for Los Angeles Opera) is undeniably beautiful to look at. The Roaring Twenties set designs are among the most elegant I've ever seen on an opera stage. And, like many stage and screen productions coming out in the current recession, the luxurious sheen of the setting perfectly (if somewhat obviously at this point) presages the Great Depression and personal doom in Violetta's life.

But the diva did not seem on form last night. Despite the soaring clarity of her tone throughout, some of Netrebko's long held notes had cracks in them. She occasionally swooped up to make a high entrance rather than hitting the required note head on. Worst of all, was Netrebko's approach to depicting Violetta's illness. Although the character devotes quite a bit of time in the first two acts to explaining that her days are numbered, you wouldn't really guess that there is anything wrong with the character at all from Netrebko's lusty performance. All warning signs seem completely obliterated from her body language.

When Netrebko's Violetta faints at the end of act 2, she appears to do it more out of fear and shame as a result of being spurned by her lover than because she's expiring from consumption. As a result, the performer's sudden transformation into a dying swan in the final act seems completely unbelievable.

Perhaps Netrebko was just having an off-night. The house felt positively chilly when she appeared on stage at the start of the performance. By rights, the moment when the singer emerges from the back of a glamorous white Bentley like a movie-star should have aroused waves of applause from the audience. People in this city show their appreciation for a lot less. But Netrebko's arrival on stage didn't so much as elicit an appreciative "ah!" The dynamics of a theatre are strange.

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