A new life for La traviata

There are advantages and disadvantages of co-productions. The biggest advantage is cost sharing; when two companies pool financial resources, much more can be accomplished. In the case of the Opera San José/Opera Santa Barbara co-production of Verdi’s La traviata, a level of grandeur was achieved that neither company could have afforded on its own. Co-production disadvantages are usually about artistic vision, and fortunately for this project, José Maria Condemi, who is directing La traviata for Opera San José, is the artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara. If there were arguments over artistic goals, José Maria had all of them with himself!

José Maria wanted to have a bit of a new look for La traviata, and in his research he discovered that the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889 as part of an enormous exposition to demonstrate the great strides made by France since the overthrow of the monarchy, and to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Revolution.

Eiffel Tower

Construction of the tower, October 14 1888 – March 31, 1889; La Tour Eiffel, by Roland Barthes

In 1889, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world. It was the chief emblem of an age of unfettered optimism and it dominated the Paris skyline. To have this mighty symbol juxtaposed against the slow, inescapable destruction of one young woman, of her hopes, her most sacred longings, and finally her very life, creates a visual illustration of how the merrymakers continue their romp through the salons of Paris while she is left behind to die.

The tower, under construction, is visible through the window of Violetta’s salon in Act I and seen completed through Flora’s salon window in Act III. This also gives an indication of the passage of time and the impression that both of the women live on the butte of Montmartre, overlooking the city below. This area of Paris is still known for its liberal morality and was the home of many of the greatest artists, composers, writers, and thinkers of that time, the very people who would have populated Violetta’s salon.

The sets were designed by Erik Flatmo, who also designed Eugene Onegin, The Magic Flute, and Tosca for Opera San José in past seasons. Erik has given us a stylish, large, 19th-century-inspired residence with classic paneling and dull-mirrored surfaces. It readily adapts to the opera’s four scenes: Violetta’s Paris salon in Act I, the country house she shares with Alfredo in Act II, Flora’s elegant apartments in Act III, and finally in Act IV, Violetta’s Paris bedroom, where her belongings are being readied for auction. Elizabeth Poindexter, whose extensive list of productions for Opera San José most recently added the West Coast premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina, designed the luxurious costumes of the famous courtesan and her elegant entourage.

The Bridesmaid
The Bridesmaid by J. Tissot, 1883;

When I heard that José Maria wanted La traviata set in 1889, I was pleased to think that we would save costs by utilizing costumes from Anna Karenina, which is in the same period by the same designer; I was soon disabused of my foolish delusion. The fashions of 1889 were in a period of transition between the height of the bustle in 1883 and the slimmed down and daring silhouette of the “hourglass” that dominated the 1890s. The 1880s were a time of heavy brocades, lace, ribbon, false and real flowers, and richly draped fabrics. Going against tradition, Violetta will make her first appearance on our stage in yellow lace.

Chris Maravich, San Francisco Opera’s production lighting designer, will design lighting for La traviata. The only other time Chris has designed for Opera San José was for Mozart’s The Magic Flute in 2008, when José Maria was the stage director. After many years working together on the direction staff of the San Francisco Opera, José Maria and Chris have become a great team.

In all, we have an enormously gifted, experienced and resourceful creative team for this co-production of La traviata, and I feel certain that these visual elements combined with the sure hand of Conductor David Rohrbaugh, Assistant Conductor Joseph Marcheso and Chorus Master Andrew Whitfield will bring to San José a very satisfying production of one of the great operas of all time, Verdi’s La traviata.

La traviata is sponsored by the Applied Materials Foundation.