Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, kneels during a rehearsal for Verdi's La Traviata.
Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, kneels during a rehearsal for Opera San Antonio's La Traviata. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Opera San Antonio’s forthcoming production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata tells the story of a woman exploited by a male-dominated society and then cast aside when she became a threat to a bourgeois family’s status.

If the plot sounds like headlines in 2018, little has changed. Director Garnett Bruce said Verdi adapted a novel by Alexandre Dumas to hold a mirror to 1850s Parisian society.

One of the most beloved works in opera, La Traviata performances will take place Thursday, Sept. 13, and Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. La Traviata opens the fifth season of Opera San Antonio, the Tobin Center’s resident opera company.

Bruce knows the Tobin and Opera San Antonio as he directed Madama Butterfly in 2015. He has directed or collaborated with opera companies including Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, Italy.

His large-scale stagings of Turandot, Carmen, Tosca, Aida, and others were influenced by his work with Broadway director Harold Prince on Faust at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. After graduating from Tufts University, he interned with Leonard Bernstein for his performances and recording of Candide by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Bruce told the Rivard Report he is excited about collaborating with the local company and guiding the singers and musicians through its first Traviata “in an honest and emotionally vivid way.”

Having directed La Traviata with Chicago Lyric Opera, he knows the set – Opera San Antonio is using the Lyric Opera’s rather than one from Glimmerglass Opera, its source for the last several productions, as it didn’t fit the Tobin Center stage. Also, the chorus master is a longtime friend.

“What will be new is our principals and our conductor whom I have met but not collaborated with,” Bruce said. “The rehearsal process becomes a sharing of ideas and what results will be something that is unique to San Antonio and, hopefully, will leap off the stage of the Tobin Center.”

Using Chicago Lyric Opera’s traditional set design, Opera San Antonio’s production will reflect the time period in which the opera was written “to honor Verdi’s intent to give a critique of society in the 1850s, as did Dumas,” Bruce said. “He thought there was an entire generation of lives being wasted by this bourgeois society by their wrath and their power.”

(From left) Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, and Germont, performed by Weston Hurt, sing together during rehearsal.
(From left) Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, and Germont, performed by Weston Hurt, sing together during rehearsal. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The story opens with a grand party of singing and dancing hosted by Violetta, an independent woman of questionable means. A young man of good family, Alfredo, is smitten, and she wonders if he might offer true love. In the second act, Violetta and Alfredo have set up household and enjoy a quieter life in the country. Threatening their love is Violetta’s creeping illness and, the final blow, a visit by Alfredo’s father when his son is away. He thinks Violetta is after his son’s money, though she is paying the bills, and persuades her to leave him for the sake of their family’s honor. Violetta relinquishes Alfredo with much heartbreak and before he can find out why.

In the end, Bruce said, “What Alfredo hopefully realizes is that she was the honorable one and he was not because he overlooked love for status, and she was happy to throw the status away in the name of love.”

Soprano Amanda Woodbury, acclaimed for her performance in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rome?o et Juliette last season, will perform the leading role of Violetta. Since her professional debut in 2013 with LA Opera, Woodbury has performed with companies throughout the country and last season made her international debut with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

David Portillo, a San Antonio native well known to concertgoers, will portray Alfredo. Portillo is receiving national recognition for his performances at the Metropolitan Opera and worldwide, and will appear in Mozart’s Idomeneo with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in October. He is a graduate of Holmes High School and UTSA.

(From left) Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, and Alfredo, performed by David Portillo, sing to one another.
(From left) Violetta, performed by Amanda Woodbury, and Alfredo, performed by David Portillo, sing to one another. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Weston Hurt, known to opera audiences around the country, will perform the role of Alfredo’s father Germont. Opera News wrote of Hurt after another performance of Germont as having “a gorgeous baritone, which is golden, weighty, and clear. His performance was faultless – stylistically on the money, dramatically committed, and displaying a vocalism that was perfectly even from the top to the bottom of his range.”

Orit Eylon and Kara Covey will perform in supporting roles as Violetta’s confidants.

Reached before discussions about San Antonio’s style of La Traviata had begun, Woodbury has her own approach to portraying roles.

“I think it’s so important with opera to find those things that are relevant to us, and Violetta is the kind of character for women to look to today,” she said. “She’s been a victim for so long, but she fights for what she wants, and she doesn’t let what’s happened to her hold her back from finding her own happiness. The true message for me in my preparation so far is her compassion. She really teaches us about love. When we watch her struggle, it brings you to tears, and you just love her because she loves so much.

“I think if you are changed in any way, that’s for the better.”

As have many before him, Bruce laments the historical lack of support for opera in San Antonio.

“You have this great group of singers and this marvelous symphony, and so [this is] giving them the chance to really expand their musical background. With such a vast population, opera is definitely one of the arts that should be honored in one of the crown jewels of the city.”

In conjunction with La Traviata, the Tobin Center is presenting an exhibit of costume sketches from the McNay Art Museum by renowned British set and costume designer Desmond Heeley. The pen and ink sketches include designs for the costumes used in Opera San Antonio’s production as well as for Hamlet, MacBeth, Don Quixote, and other operas.

Heeley began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and had a long association with the Stratford Festival in Ontario, with 40 production designs. He also designed sets and costumes for the Metropolitan Opera and several Broadway productions, which won him three Tony Awards. Heeley died in 2016.

To learn more about La Traviata, a complimentary lecture will be held at 6:30 p.m. before each performance in the Tobin Center.

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.