Let me preface this by saying that I am not even remotely qualified to be an opera critic. For an insightful music guru’s wisdom and cultural/historical context, look at our senior arts writer Josef Woodard’s preview of Opera Santa Barbara’s La Traviata. I am merely a longtime journalist trained to observe and report on what I hear and see, but Opera Santa Barbara’s grand season finale made me into an opera fan.
The drama, the heartbreaking romance, the glamorous stars, the fabulous costumes, clever staging, and incredibly beautiful music — soprano Anya Matanovic’s performance of the emotionally heart wrenching aria “Sempre libera” alone is enough to bring tears to eyes of even the most stoic observers — all added up to a whopper of season ender for Opera Santa Barbara. When it comes to high stakes drama, the Kardashian family has nothing on this lot. The team led by Kostis Protopapas has much to be proud of.
Set in 19th century Paris, Giuseppe Verdi’s now beloved 1853 classic — which is based on Alexander Dumas’ novel and subsequent stage play La Dame aux Camélias (the lady of the camellias) — is the story of Violetta Valery (Matanovic), a glamorous Parisian courtesan, the prototypical hooker with the heart of gold.
She falls in love with the young nobleman Alfredo — tenor Nathan Granner, who local audiences are familiar with from his 2018 performance in La Bohème — but their star-crossed love affair is challenged by her health problems, financial woes, and major objections by Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, in a standout performance by baritone Joel Balzun.
The tuxedoed-troupe of “ballet valets” — dancers Julia Kamilos, Ryan Lenkey, Noam Tisivkin, and Saori Yamashita — featuring clever choreography by Cecily MacDougall were a charming addition to the staging.
Director Tara Faircloth — praised by Santa Barbara audiences for Opera Santa Barbara’s La Rondine in 2017 — brought a dose of humor and social satire to what is at heart a tragic love story. And the Opera Santa Barbara Chorus and 35-member Opera Santa Barbara Orchestra were stellar.
Like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, whose character (the creation of which was no doubt inspired by Violetta) is brought to tears by a performance of La Traviata, I too was on the edge of my seat, and then brought to my feet with the rest of the appreciative audience — for a standing ovation for this fabulous production.