Opera Warhorses

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Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014

July 6th, 2014

San Francisco Opera celebrated the Fourth of July weekend with a performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” that introduced the “July cast”, consisting of mostly American singers led by Chicago-born Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, Philadelphia-born Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Honolulu-born Quinn Kelsey as Giorgio Germont. 

The performance took place before an audience of over 2600 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It was simulcast to an additional tenfold of spectators. An audience of 26,000+ was located at the home of the San Francisco Giants, AT&T  Stadium for the eighth in the series of popular S. F. operatic performances telecast live at the Giant’s ballpark.

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, in the second act of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The production incorporated the attractive sets of John Conklin, first seen in 1987, but absent from the War Memorial Opera House stage for a decade. The staging was originally conceived by the eminent British director John Copley.

(The sets, of course, were conceived long before there was any thought of baseball stadium simulcasts, or for that matter, the construction of the AT&T ballpark for the Giants. Yet, according to Frank Zamacona, the simulcast’s director – who, like myself, was present at the War Memorial – the sets were so constructed that they fit perfectly on the ballpark screen.

[ Below: Stephen Costello as Alfredo Germont; resized image of a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Not only was the Copley-Conklin production telegenic, so too was the cast, bringing together, for the first time on the San Francisco Opera stage, the husband and wife team of Pérez and Costello, even though both of them had separately appeared previously here in “La Traviata”.

Pérez had sung a single Violetta in the 2009 mounting of “La Traviata” in a production borrowed from the Los Angeles Opera. Costello had sung the role of Alfredo on two occasions in the previous month, to the Violetta of Nicole Cabell.

Ailyn Pérez’ Violetta and  Stephen Costello’s Alfredo

“Traviata” is one of several operas in which this popular operatic couple appear together. The obvious chemistry onstage between them is enhanced by the beauty of their lyric voices, each with the requisite power and technique to excel in these iconic roles. Both graduates of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, they now have years of experience in blending their vocal instruments.

I’ve reported previously on their Violetta and Alfredo elsewhere [Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello Star in Cincinnati Opera’s “La Traviata” – July 26, 2012].

[Below: Alfredo Germont (Stephen Costello, right) expresses his love for Violetta (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The Pérez-Costello expertise in projecting young love also shone through in their portrayals of the famous young lovers of Gounod. [See Costello, Pérez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010 and Costello, Pérez, Grimsley and Mulligan Brilliant in Spectacularly Staged “Faust” – San Diego Opera, April 23, 2011.

They also excelled as Mimi and Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme”  [See L. A. Boheme: Pérez, Costello Lead Youthful Cast in Classic “Cinematic” Production: Los Angeles Opera, May 12, 2012.].

Quinn Kelsey’s Giorgio Germont

The results of the American investment in Young Artists’ programs that began 57 years ago with such trendsetting programs as the Santa Fe Opera Apprentices and the San Francisco Opera Merola program (as well as such opera-oriented academic programs as Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts) are evident not only in the performances of Pérez and Costello, but also in the emergence of yet another stellar dramatic Verdi baritone, Quinn Kelsey.

Of native Hawai’ian descent [See Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey], the alumnus of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center has emerged as a new star in a vocal category that requires both a large voice and strength and lyrical beauty in the higher part of the baritone range, that is prerequisite for success in the major baritone roles of Verdi’s maturity.

[Below: Giorgio Germont (Quinn Kelsey, left) reaches an understanding with Violetta (Ailyn Pérez, right); edited image, based on a Kristen Loken photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I have recorded Kelsey’s successes in Verdian roles [See A Second Look: “Attila”, Verdi and Italian Opera in the Luisotti Era – San Francisco Opera, July 2, 2012 and An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.]

Kelsey produced what one expects of a great Germont – a secure sound, formidable technique, and a dramatic feeling for the character.

A Germont must convince the audience of his initial hostility to Violetta’s scandalous cohabitation with his son. Then, in a few phrases Germont must display first empathy to Violetta’s sacrifice, and, in the following scenes to become the defender of her honor and, ultimately, at her deathbed, to express both paternal love and deep regret at his interference in her life.

Kelsey’s theatrical instincts were evident throughout his performance, portraying, often through facial expression and a still posture, the dignity and inner turmoil of this father from Provence.

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Violetta, seen on the San Francisco Giants’ scoreboard during the simulcast of Verdi’s “La Traviata” to AT&T Ballpark; resized image, based on a Scott Wall photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Giuseppe Finzi has taken over the baton for the final four performances of “Traviata”. With Finzi leading the experienced San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece is in good hands.

A Personal Observation

I had attended the first performances of both the June and July casts of “La Traviata” and have remarked on the dramatic impact of having young attractive singers skilled in Verdian technique, portraying the young lovers [Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Traviata” Starring Cabell and Pirgu – San Francisco Opera, June 11, 2014].

The first cast consisted of Nicole Cabell, one of the luminous alumnae of the Chicago Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center as Violetta and, as Alfredo, Albanian Lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu, a protege of the eminent conductor Claudio Abbado whom the world lost this year.

They were joined by Vladimir Stoyanov, whose singing at the Berlin Staatsoper had impressed me.

The fine performance was conducted with passion by San Francisco Opera’s music director Maestro Nicola Luisotti.

Readers of my reviews may have noticed a divergence in opinion between myself and the lead critic of the newspaper of record in San Francisco, who, I suspect, shocked the San Francisco Opera administration and artists with what many regarded as a mean-spirited review.

Among the points of disagreement between my review and his was his indictment of the Copley-Conklin production that he charged had been mounted for the “umpteenth time”.

(In point of fact, at the end of the July 2014 run, the production will have been seen a total of 55 performances in 27 years. As noted above, the Copley-Conlkin “Traviata” was not seen at all from Fall 2004 to the beginning of Summer 2014.

To me, the average of two performances a year over a quarter century seems to suggest that this is not an overexposed production. Nor would I wish to see any opera company trash an expensive production simply because the reviewers (even including myself) feel they have seen it too often.

Over the years, I have been impressed by the quality of the singing and the productions at San Francisco Opera. There may be a time when something mounted here deserves some harsh words from knowledgeable critics, but certainly not the Copley-Conklin “Traviata”, especially not with the world-class singers that San Francisco Opera presented this summer.


See also my interviews with the lead artists: Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 and Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2, and also,

Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 1 and  Rising Stars: An Interview with Stephen Costello, Part 2.

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