Life of the Party

Soprano Mané Galoyan dazzles in Santa Fe Opera’s newest rendition of “La Traviata”

Mané Galoyan as Violetta, with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus, opens La Traviata as the life of the party. Photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera

By all accounts, Alexandre Dumas fils (whose father wrote The Three Musketeers) wrote his novel La Dame aux CaméliasLady of the Camellias—in less than a month in an emotional response to the death of 23-year-old Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis, his former lover. The book opens with a scene lifted from real life, when Dumas attended Duplessis’ estate sale and watched people sift through her belongings.

Published in 1848, the novel arrived in the world alongside insurrections in Paris, which stymied its reprint as well as its stage adaptation—also written swiftly in just over a week. Only three years later after a regime change did the play finally open—only to be immediately censored. As the introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel notes:

“Until then no dramatist had dared to put on stage a courtesan whose life had not been either distanced by history or poetized by legend. Young Dumas had not only brought the public into the world of Duplessis; he had also portrayed it exactly as he had known it, using the clothes, decor and dialogue of modern life.”

The ban lasted only three days before the play began its run again and became a hit—and inspired Giuseppe Verdi in 1853 to create La Traviata with librettist Francesco Maria Piave.

In Verdi’s iteration, Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry carries on a life of parties and revelry while her health declines from tuberculosis. She meets and falls in love with poor young Alfredo Germont and decides to forfeit her extravagant lifestyle to be with him. They run away to the country, but Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont persuades Violetta to sacrifice her love for his son for the family’s honor. Spoiler alert: The lovers are eventually united, just before Violetta’s inevitable death.

Left: Mané Galoyan as Violetta, with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus, battles inner and outer demons as her health declines and she abandons true love. Photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera (curtis brown for the santa fe opera)

La Traviata initially flopped before rebounding to become one of the most beloved in the opera repertoire. The Santa Fe Opera’s 2024 production is its 14th, following 2009 and 2013 performances—which received mixed reviews in this paper.

Not so this year.

Director Louisa Muller has reset the opera in 1939 Paris, on the eve of World War II, and has cited Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game, a French “comedy” that critiques the hypocrisy of its society, as an influence on her production (the opera teamed up with the Center for Contemporary Arts to screen films that influenced three of this year’s operas; catch the final one, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and learn about its relationship to The Righteous at 6 pm, Monday, July 8 at CCA).

The Rules of the Game, like Verdi’s opera and Dumas’ source material, had a rocky start before becoming the revered work it is today: it was hated by audiences, banned by Nazis, destroyed and reconstructed in 1959.

In a preview video to the opera, Muller speaks at greater length of the decision to set the opera in prewar Paris, calling it “an amazing time of art-making and extravagance and just a gathering place for sort of every artist and writer and thinker of that time.” At the same time, she notes, it was also “a really sort of dangerous time, as everyone feels the dread of war coming. Everybody’s very aware of the rise of fascism around Europe.”

In the Santa Fe Opera’s production, scenic and costume designer Christopher Oram perfectly echoes the subtle use of foreground and background in Renoir’s film, with a revolving set that allows for the scene changes, but also provides serpentine glimpses of characters in private versus public moments—underscoring the thematic tension between personal lives and societal realities, ably punctuated by lighting designer Marcus Doshi.

The set and the costumes also are beautiful and striking in good measure, from Violetta’s simple negligee to the increasingly bawdy costumes of the party-goers as the opera moves toward its climax. Moreover, the genteel party attire transitions to outré costuming as the facade of polite society crumbles to reveal the dangers and treachery lying in wait.

Muller’s resonant concept works, and the show’s 2 1/2-hour run-time flies by in a whirl of music and dance—thanks to the dynamic conducting of Corrado Rovaris; extraordinary group performances under the direction of Chorus Master Susanne Sheston (with show-stealing turns from apprentices Kaylee Nichols, mezzo-soprano, as Flora, and bass-baritone Sam Dhobhany as Marchese d’Obigny); and the show’s choreography under the direction of Matthew Steffens—particularly dancers Nicholas Sipes and Emily Cardea (Lady of the Camellias also became a ballet, which we now want to see).

But saving the most key performance for last: Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan in her Santa Fe debut delivers an emotive performance and beautiful singing that would not only bring Julia Roberts to tears (sorry, had to make at least one La Traviata pop culture reference and Pretty Woman won out over Moulan Rouge), but in fact silenced the strangely restive attendees in my section on opening night.

Neither tenor Bekhzod Davronov as Alfredo Germont, nor baritone Alfredo Daza as Giorgio Germont (who replaced , Carlos Arámbula, who withdrew for personal reasons) made a strong or lasting impression, so moving was Galoyan’s performance as the opera’s titular fallen woman, whose real-life counterpart inspired so much enduring art.

Don Giovanni

Santa Fe Opera

8:30 pm, July 3, 6,12, 19; 8pm Aug.1, 5, 10, 17, 20 and 24

Seated ticket prices range $37 to $409. SRO is $15. First time buyers with NM ID can receive 40% off a pair of tickets. Call or visit the Box Office for the most up to date information and pricing or visit santafeopera.org.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date for the Santa Fe Opera’s last performance of La Traviata. SFR regrets the error.

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