SAN FRANCISCO — The version of Verdi's virtually indestructible "La Traviata" staged Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House was officially labeled a new production.
New, in this instance, did not mean different or original or modern. It just meant superficially unfamiliar.
John Copley, the eminently sensible British stage director, is not known as an avant-gardist. He doesn't usually search for hidden meanings, unifying concepts, sociopolitical subtexts or unexpected interpretive insights.
In this "Traviata," he was content to respect most of the composer's wishes and follow most of the librettist's instructions. He tried to re-create the basic impulses dictated by tradition.
John Conklin, the designer, approached his task with comparable and compatible sympathy for convention. He rocked no stylistic boat, as it were, though he did contribute one odd innovation: He set all four acts in a meticulously detailed, realistic, boxy little stage within the stage.
The result suggests one of two possibilities: either the claustrophobic heroine--the epitomical courtesan with a heart of gold--lives in a dangerously overcrowded world (ah, symbolism!), or the production has been scaled so it can be leased to smaller houses with smaller prosceniums (ah, practicality!).
There is nothing wrong with conservatism, of course, when it sharpens our focus on a historic masterpiece. There is nothing wrong with dramatic restraint when it offsets individual performances of hypnotic appeal. Unfortunately, Terence McEwen, the resident impresario, has populated this correct but rather dull "Traviata" with a correct but rather dull trio of principals.
Nelly Miricioiu, the Romanian soprano who made her U.S. debut here as Violetta in 1983, returned to the fleeting ecstasies and sacrificial agonies of the title role. She looked lovely, acted sensitively, sang gingerly.
Her bright, light and clear soprano seemed to have lost much of its gleam, however, along with much of its top extension and fioritura facility. Her brittle, sometimes actually threadbare tone could be affecting in Violetta's most pathetic moments--she still dies a pretty death--but the demands for passion, hysteria and glitter proved problematic.
Francisco Araiza as Alfredo continued to subject an exquisite lyric tenor to the dangerous rigors of relatively heroic music. He nearly came to grief with the cadential flourish of the second-act cabaletta . But he did provide ample compensation with ravishing, tender phrases at the beginning of "Parigi, o cara," and in general offered a sympathetic portrait of the impetuous but stupid young lover.
Juan Pons, like most baritones cast as Giorgio Germont, tended toward the stiff and stuffy. He sang, however, with an opulent, rolling baritone that actually sustained an introspective pianissimo during a very leisurely "Di Provenza." Unlike his stage son, incidentally, he was deprived of his climactic cabaletta .
The supporting roles were tellingly delineated, for a change, with Heather Begg as a compellingly exuberant Flora, Eric Garrett as a fussy and crotchety Marquis d'Obigny, Donna Petersen as a warm and endearing Annina, Philip Skinner as a sinister Baron Douphol and Kevin Anderson as a youthful Gastone.
Andrew Meltzer, who sanctioned nearly all the time-dishonored cuts, conducted with generalized grace, discretion and a penchant for sentimentality.
This was, for most practical purposes, just another uneven "Traviata." At least it was cautious, clean and reasonably sound.
Verdi has endured worse. So, for that matter, has San Francisco.