MODESTO -- Giuseppe Verdis La Traviata is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world because of its greatest-hits score and its emotional story about a doomed love affair between a courtesan and a playboy.
Townsend Opera modernizes the 1853 classic with its engaging new production set in San Francisco in the 1980s at the start of the AIDS crisis. As seen at Wednesday nights dress rehearsal, the show featured stunningly beautiful music sung in Italian and striking sets and costumes. While there were many problems with the supertitles providing the English translation, including long sections with no supertitles at all, hopefully they will be corrected by tonights opening performance at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto.
The main reason to see this show is Liisa Davilas showstopping performance as the courtesan Violetta Valery, who gives up the only man she has ever loved to help his family and then dies of AIDS. The Merced soprano sings like an angel, especially in her big aria Sempre Libera (Always Free). She is also a talented actress, showing extreme pain at being separated from her lover. Davila is a San Francisco district winner and a Western regional finalist for the Metropolitan National Council Auditions. In 2010, she won the first International Phyllis Osterhout Vocal Competition in Turlock.
Santa Barbara tenor Mathew Edwardsen, who plays Violettas lover, Alfredo, also has a strong, commanding voice that blends well with Davilas. But he is not as adept at summoning the passion required in the role. When Violetta leaves him, he seems only mildly disappointed, not devastated.
Baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez shines as Alfredos father, who asks Violetta to leave Alfredo so that his familys good name and reputation can be restored. He is a confident presence onstage and transforms on stage from showing disapproval to Violetta to compassion for her plight.
The supporting cast of California State University, Stanislaus, vocal students sounds good for the most part, but sometimes gets off-time with the excellent orchestra conducted by Ryan Murray.
Director Joseph Wiggetts staging, with sets by Jean-Francois Evon, is colorful and flashy, which should entertain audiences. It opens with a scene of a 1980s nightclub, compete with large Rubiks cubes standing in for tables. Theres also a beach set of Santa Cruz and a final scene showing the outline of the San Francisco skyline. Tara Roes retro-hip costumes include long disco dresses, pantsuits and preppy sweaters.
Matthew Buckman, the operas managing director, said the company plans to put up a big photo display in the lobby showing a timeline with the history of AIDS as well as photos of patients and statistics about the disease. Just as the Metropolitan Opera does in hits movie broadcasts, the opera company also plans to show video before the show of backstage activity by the stage crew as well as interviews with the performers. All these extras are part of the companys Opera Remix program, a new initiative funded by the James Irvine Foundation to expand Townsend Operas audience.
Townsend Opera should be applauded for its efforts. The 30-year-old opera company has been getting better and better in the past few years with more-entertaining, better- quality productions. This appealing version of La Traviata should please both hard-core opera fans and opera novices.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313. Follow her on Twitter, @MilleganRenner.
Townsend Opera's 'La Traviata'
RATING: * * *
WHERE: Rogers Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today and noon Sunday
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions
INFORMATION: (209) 338-2100 or www.galloarts.org
* * * * Excellent; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor