Violetta Revisited

And a sweet start for ChamberFest '13

Finally I get it. Five years ago I denounced Laurent Pelly’s staging of Verdi’s La traviata for the Santa Fe Opera as “spectacularly inept.” Now, with the company’s current revival of that show, I take it back, partly. Call it cartoonish, but the vulgarities of Pelly’s take on the opera emphasize the self-indulgent Parisian society that Violetta implicitly rejects through her selfless abandonment of Alfredo. And in turn, that society rejects Violetta’s heroic self-sacrifice.

Does it work? Yes, at times, but at the expense of making Alfredo a callow mediocrity and his father, Germont, a monster—both of whom, in this staging, desert an isolated Violetta on her deathbed. It’s a pretty concept, but one that sadly, gratuitously, distorts what Verdi’s libretto and score are telling us.

The appealing young soprano Brenda Rae makes her debut here in the title role. She’s largely successful in the treacherous opening act, negotiating with comfort the high-flying acrobatics of “Sempre libera.” She comes into her own in the second act, where her floating, elegantly phrased “Dite alla giovine” and fragile stage demeanor bring the character into focus as a paragon of self-abnegation. Although swallowed up by the frenetic stage direction of Act 3, Rae goes on to make her “Addio del passato” a wonder of subtle messa di voce pathos and control.

Her Alfredo, Michael Fabiano in another debut, fares less well. He’s directed to play the clueless boyfriend, out of his depth in a wicked, wicked world. Which he does, coming across as a crowd-pleasing hunk with a loud voice. It’s a pleasant young voice to be sure. We’d like to hear more of it, toned down, in more favorable circumstances.

Even less sympathetic is the Germont, Roland Wood, a forbidding paterfamilias with ice-water in his veins. Wood’s wobbly delivery doesn’t make “Di Provenza il mar” any more persuasive than usual. Conductor Leo Hussain leads an accomplished if unexceptional account of the score, while the fine chorus clearly relishes their licentious frolics. Chantal Thomas’ sepulchral set gets a major Act 2 modification from 2008. But, plus ça change ...

On the sunnier side, two splendid seasonal events arrived in town a few days ago. For one, the monsoons finally kicked in. For another, the 41st season of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival got happily off the ground as well. A mere coincidence?

SFCMF’s light-hearted opening program—heard July 15—made for smiles galore. A couple of rare-ish pieces made up the first half, beginning with Carlo Piatti’s brief Serenade for Two Cellos and Piano (1890). While not exactly a cello version of dueling banjos, the charming work offered plenty of competitive licks for the strings. Cellists Nicholas Canellakis and Joseph Johnson clearly enjoyed themselves, as did pianist Inon Barnatan—and a delighted audience.

Barnatan returned for Anton Arensky’s Piano Quintet, Op. 51 (1900), a tuneful Brahms-lite undertaking that deserves to be better known. Its theme-and-variations movement shows the composer’s talents to best advantage, providing playful, witty exchanges within the energetic ensemble. Violinists Lily Francis and Benjamin Beilman, violist Teng Li, and cellist Ronald Thomas assisted in making a joyful noise.

All of the above artists, minus Barnatan and Johnson, plus violist CarlaMaria Rodrigues, completed the program with a spritely reading of Tchaikovsky’s mouth-watering Souvenir de Florence, offering yet more smiles for a summer night.

Soyeon Kate Lee’s piano recital at the second of the SFCMF’s noon concerts on July 18 featured works by Janáček, Scriabin, Beethoven and Stravinsky. The Czech composer’s furious, tragic Sonata, “Z ulice, 1.X.1905” (1906) commemorates a brutal bayoneting at a university demonstration. Lee’s persuasive command of the unique Janáček “voice” made powerful sense of the obsessive final movement marked “Death.”

Superbly pianistic accounts of two hyper-romantic Scriabin exercises followed. In the recital’s climax, Beethoven’s fathomless Op. 110 Sonata, Lee’s nuanced assurance and maturity of expression were a revelation. Her reading of Guido Agosti’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” brought the concert to a headspinning finale.


$32-$285.  8:30 pm July 24;

8 pm July 29; Aug 2,5,10,16,22

Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive,



$20-$73; Through Aug. 18

St. Francis Auditorium; Lensic Theater,


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