For Palm Sunday, I flew to San Diego with Stephan, my pet bombast, at my side. Luckily, there was preflight seat selection so we didn’t have to go through the usual scene of Stephan tossing some little old lady into the aisle so he could get a good window seat.
The occasion was the closing performance of the San Diego Opera season, Verdi’s La Traviata, starring Beverly Sills. In all fairness, if you want three and a half hours of teary-eyed audiences being treated to beautiful music, there is no better way than to watch Bubbles die of consumption at a matinee.
This production of Traviata is the same one that was seen on PBS television last fall after being videotaped at Wolf Trap. Physically, it is a sumptuous production which, coupled with the sensitive direction by Tito Capobianco and Ms. Sills’ persuasive acting, set a tone to the performance that is rarely achieved. Traviata is, of course, the story of Camille, the famous courtesan who coughs her way to death during the course of true love and an evening’s opera. Too often we see sopranos who are either far too healthy to be believable or who are, for technical reasons, concentrating on the athletic demands of making it through the evening. Verdi’s Violetta is to a soprano what cross country is to a runner. It tests you under every terrain and if you can make it through the role in one piece you can be pretty proud of your work.
However, when a soprano can bring such tenderness, understanding, and clarity to a role as Sills does, it is an artistic achievement. Considering that she has sung the role of Violetta several hundred times, the freshness and intensity of her characterization or remarkable.
This is the first production of Traviata I have ever seen where certain important points were brought out clearly but with great delicacy: that Violetta is truly the sadder-but-wiser girl in her crowd, and that no matter how many friends and lover surround here, she is always alone and well aware of that fact. The pacing is important in the first act particularly, where Violetta has just recovered from a long illness, and although a bit tipsy, her weakness and her boredom with life leave her less rowdy than her friends. When Alfredo expresses his love to her, Sills manages to project a poignant wonder, as if saying “I’ve been to just too many of these parties and there’s still some nice young man trying to hit on me!!” By avoiding many of the climactic operatic gestures generally employed, Sills manages to achieve a continuity of character throughout the evening. Thus, she brings out the far more sensitive and introspective nature of Violetta.
Vocally the performance was beautiful, most touching in the final death scene, where Violetta is again alone in a cavernous bedroom, and everyone else seems to have gotten wise far too late. A pleasant surprise was the compassionate singing of Ryan Edwards in the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, who demands that Violetta sacrifice her happiness with Alfredo to save his family’s reputation.
As Alfredo, William McDonald sang very well, but was too detached for a young man having a hot love affair. He tended to play to the audience and appeared uncomfortable interacting with the rest of the cast. Whatever warmth he may have lacked was easily made up for by the passion which flowed from Miss Sills and Ryan Edwards.
An interesting side note: This is one of the few times I have seen Sills perform with two men who are both taller than her, and it made her Violetta more fragile. I once saw a performance of Puritani where the tenor had been costumed in a huge feathered hat and Joan Crawford pumps but could barely manage an embrace higher than her shoulders. Good tenors are rare enough; tall ones are almost a miracle these days.
We spoke with Beverly backstage after the performance where she confessed that her afternoon concert in Golden Gate Park last fall was one of the most beautiful singing experiences in her career. In addition to performing in San Francisco this fall in Puritani, she will be reviving Manon at the New York City Opera and will also sing two performances with them as Adele in Fledermaus. For those who have not seen her as Manon, it should not be missed. This is one of the definitive performances in the Sills career. There is a good chance that New York City Opera will make this production available to California audiences on its Fall visit to Los Angeles. Any of you planning a trip to Hollywierd around Thanksgiving ought to keep that in mind.
Ms. Sills also revealed that she had dropped plans of singing Lady Macbeth in San Diego in 1978 but is very excited about the world premiere of an opera she will do there based on a play by Jean Cocteau. She promised it will be “absolutely hair raising.”
For those of you weekending in San Diego, the Little America Westgate Hotel at 1055 Second Street serves a fabulous Sunday brunch (right across the street from the Opera House). The lighting above the buffet tables sometimes plays strange tricks, though. I once saw a little lady fiendishly attacking a bathtub full of what looked like chopped liver but turned out to be chocolate mousse. Just remember, if you “pig out” on the brunch, you can always walk it off later at the San Diego Zoo.
Recently San Diego released the lineup for their 1977-78 opera season with six weeks of performances in the Fall and six weeks in the Spring. Opening night will be on October 2, with Sills starring as The Merry Widow. Also in October will be Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Bizet’s Carmen. Those of you who took to Josella Ligi in San Francisco's Andrea Chenier two years ago will want to know that she is singing Micaela in Carmen this year.
The Spring season will feature Verdi’s Falstaff, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Prokofiev’s The Love For Three Oranges, a rarely performed but beautiful opera.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 14, 1977.