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A Tale of Two 'Traviatas'

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A Black woman in a red dress stands against a parlor wall of deep red, adorned with paintings
Pretty Yende as Violetta in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ at San Francisco Opera. (Cory Weaver)

I’m used to New York looking down on the Bay Area, but I never realized until recently that its condescension extended to, of all things, opera.

Scene: I’m at Lincoln Center in New York a couple weeks ago to see Verdi’s La Traviata, and a man nearby strikes up a conversation. When he learns I’m from the Bay Area, he furrows his brow: “Oh, I have heard about San Francisco opera. Not so good.”

Coupled with The New York Times weirdly slamming Berkeley-based composer John Adams’ San Francisco premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, a original and engrossing work, I had to wonder: what gives?

Seeing La Traviata as a first-time visitor to the Met in New York, I couldn’t help but be a little awed by its elegant red-and-white lobby, ascending chandeliers and famous facade. As for the top-notch performance of Nadine Sierra as Violetta? It brought me to tears.

But if the package comes with haughtiness, like so many things in New York do (see: the Yankees’ fanbase, Notorious B.I.G. zealots, whatever this Grade-A horse manure is), then gimme San Francisco’s brand of opera any day.

A Black woman in a blue dress stands above a crowd engaged in revelry
Pretty Yende as Violetta among members of the ensemble in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ at San Francisco Opera. (Cory Weaver)

I decided to see La Traviata again, at SF Opera, just a week after seeing it at the Met, to compare. The primary difference is that the casting is simply more interesting. At the Met, Sierra may have the more gossamer timbre. But in San Francisco, soprano Pretty Yende brings a wholly different dimension to the role, extracting more of the wonder and pathos of Violetta’s predicament. (Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo and Simone Piazzola as Giorgio, both making their SF Opera debuts, deliver convincing performances as well.)

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The set in New York? Virtually unchanging, save for some furniture swaps, as well as towers of wooden lattice to convey “the country.” In San Francisco, meanwhile, the audience audibly gasped when the curtain rose on the beautiful, decor-laden deep red set for Act II’s party scene.

San Francisco’s Traviata is also directed by a woman, Shawna Lucey — which, considering its tensions over a woman’s place in society and the men who have the power to reduce it, should be the rule for every staging of La Traviata.

In short, the Met is nice, but we’ve got something special here in the Bay Area. I can guarantee one other difference, too: unlike at the Met, a cup of coffee and a cookie at intermission won’t set you back $19.

‘La Traviata’ runs through Saturday, Dec. 3, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Details here.

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