Their birthdays invite comparison: Verdi's La Traviata received its world premiere in Venice on March 6, l853; Gounod's Faust received its world premiere in Paris six years later, on March 19, 1859. Although the dramatic action of these two operas is set in different countries, different centuries and vastly different societies, ever since their first performances, each has become a staple of the operatic repertory.
Why? First of all, because these two works contain some of the operatic literature's most popular hit tunes. Second, because their stories are taken from solid dramatic sources (Alexandre Dumas' play entitled La Dame Aux Camelias and Goethe's dramatic poem about the aging German scholar who sold his soul to the devil). Each opera also invokes a popular form of morality with regard to the loss of a woman's virginity: Verdi's Violetta cannot escape her checkered past; Gounod's Marguerite must depend on a miracle of faith in order to redeem her soul from the evil doings of Faust and Mephistopheles.
In today's jaded American society (where the forces of gross materialism and fast food sex are now starting to exact a frightening toll) La Traviata and Faust -- which concentrate so fiercely on the costs of losing one's virtue and social standing -- continue to exert a startling hold on operatic audiences. While there are many reasons why these two works should have such strong appeal to the masses (each offers a good costume show, a modest amount of suffering and some highly hummable tunes) the bottom line is that at the heart of each opera -- its music, plot and characters -- one finds a solid core of romanticism which has steadfastly kept its appeal for at least 125 years.
If you think the sheer force of tenacity has nothing to do with the making of a classic, then ask yourself this simple question: Whatever happened to Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs?
WITHERING ON THE WINE
This fall the San Francisco Opera unveiled a new production of La Traviata which was long overdue and, although John Conklin's designs may have been aimed at inducing a claustrophobic atmosphere which would highlight the drama, his sets often left me with the feeling that this new production was sculpted in such a manner that it would become, above all other considerations, rentable to other opera companies. Conklin's reduced stage frame worked best in the Act I and Act III party scenes, where one had a sense of lavish interiors in decent-sized rooms (as opposed to the usual period furniture plopped down on a stage the size of a football field). I particularly admired Conklin's Act II set for Violetta's country house; one of the best-executed concepts for this act I have seen in recent years.
Most of the production money was obviously spent on David Walker's opulent costumes for the women; period masterpieces which will retain their glory for many years to come. However, the one line item in this new production which totally confounded me was the casting of mezzo-soprano Heather Begg as Flora. This struck me as an expensive artistic indulgence for a bit role which could have been cast at far lower cost with an American singer. I'm quite certain that, had Terry McEwen chosen to do so, his new production would not have suffered the slightest diminution in artistic strength.
Although many complained that this Traviata was deadly slow and poorly sung, at the matinee performance which I attended the principals' work was nowhere as execrable as had been reported to me from those who attended the opening night. While Andrew Meltzer adapted some excessively slow tempos, his choice reflected a heightened understanding of the theatrical content at hand. Some of Meltzer's percussive stresses in Act III, though shocking, were entirely appropriate to the dramatic moment. This was one occasion where the enthusiastic booing generated by most of Meltzer's appearances on the podium might not have been fully justified.
Of the three principals, I was most impressed by Francisco Araiza's boyishly impulsive Alfredo. Juan Pons' Germont, though solidly sung, proved to be a stock portrayal which could have been phoned in to any production. Soprano Nelly Miricioiu delivered a carefully crafted portrayal of Verdi's heroine, frequently acting up a storm (a visual factor which compensated for her occasional pitch problems and difficulties with the Act I fioriture). John Copley's sensitive direction, backed by Thomas J. Munn's exquisite lighting helped to frame many dramatic nuances which are usually trampled by the production schedule of most Traviata revivals.
All in all, this turned out to be a highly commendable production of Verdi's opera which I sincerely hope will receive as much loving attention in future appearances as it got from its creative team during the first string of performances this fall.
THE DEVIL'S DARK DOINGS
The artistic merit of San Francisco's new La Traviata was easily matched by Lyric Opera of Chicago's revival of Charles Gounod's Faust. Using a steeply-raked platform as the main part of its unit set, Pier Luigi Samaritani's production (which was telecast from the Windy City in 1979) was restaged this fall by Antonello Madau Diaz and conducted with loving care by veteran Jean Fournet.
The biggest surprise of the revival became evident during curtain calls, however, when it became abundantly clear that all four principal roles had been magnificently sung by American artists (a triumph of native casting which could never have occurred in Chicago during Carol Fox's administration). Top honors went to Samuel Ramey, who was in peak form as a vocally and physically lithe Mephistopheles. J. Patrick Raftery's Valentin was robustly sung; Neil Shicoff's Faust a convincingly youthful characerization despite the tenor's growing tendency to shout his music.
Elsewhere in the cast, Wendy White was a sympathetic Siebel; Corinna Vozza a plump and lusty Marthe Schwerlein. In addition to Ramey's powerful performance, I was most impressed by Nancy Gustafson's work as Marguerite. This tall and comely soprano, who was once an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera, continues to blossom into an outstanding artist whose remarkable facial beauty and towering stage presence are backed by a healthy voice and solid musicianship. Gustafson's voice has grown to the point where she now delivers a fully-rounded performance; she is rapidly maturing into a world-class artist whose career bears watching.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 10, 1987.