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The Santa Barbara Grand Opera's "La Traviata" is an intimate experience that envelopes you and makes you part of the emotional fabric of the drama. This intimacy comes in part from the Lobero Theater, you will never get it in the sterility of The L A Music center, but also in the staging and direction of the actors by Stephanie Sundine. The Violetta of Carol Ann Manzi has a warmth and vitality, but also a vulnerability that is truly captivating. Her presence draws you in and makes you part of her world.

The sets and costumes represent the bourgeois elegance of Paris of the 1850's. The curtain rises on the party with tables covered in fine linen and tall candleholders. Champagne flows freely and decadence and pleasure reign supreme. Violetta flirts and sings mockingly of love as Alfredo declares his for her. She grows pensive as she thinks how he came to inquire after her every day when she had recently been ill. As much as she tries, she can't put him out of her mind. Act 2 takes place in the sitting room of a county villa. There are tall windows at the back with a fireplace, a picture above it, and two big green plants. Violetta has sold most of her belongings to pay the bills. Brad Keatings's Germont is strong and intimidating as he comes and tells Violetta to give up his son. His daughter's fiancee will abandon her if Alfredo doesn't give up his affair.

Violetta is crushed as she muses "so one who has fallen has no hope of rising again." She's strong and resolute as she accepts the sacrifice. Germont recognizes her love, sees her pain, and becomes almost human, but still demands that she give up Alfredo. After Violetta has left, Germont pleads with his son to return home, but Alfredo is madly in love, he figures out that Violetta has gone to Flora's and he dashes off. Flora's party is the epitome of elegance. A big red curtain partitions the back of the stage, above a low staircase with black wrought iron railings. The entire motif is red and black heightening the sense of tragic drama. Dancers from the State Street Ballet perform a gypsy dance. The whole scene is reminiscent of "Carmen" as the matador comes strutting out and makes the play for the girl. She says he has to kill five bulls in one day as he jumps and kicks, and she does a fouetté. Five girls spin and twirl around him to symbolize the bulls, and he wins the girl. Alfredo gambles and Violetta enters with the Baron. The tension rises with the lovers on either side of the stage. They are lit in a white light, while the rest of the stage is bathed in blood red, as we are swept to the climactic duel.

The final Act is all in variations of black and white. Violetta's room is dark and gloomy, reeking of sickness and death. There's a big window at the back with a white curtain. She manages to get from the bed to the sofa, and when Alfredo arrives, it's an ecstatic delirium and she rises up radiantly as we come to the chilling finale.

"La Traviata" has a first rate cast from top to bottom led by Carol Ann Manzi's Violetta. She's warm and radiant , and establishes a rapport with the audience that makes you feel her entire emotional range, from the highest ecstasy to the deepest tragedy. Brad Keating's Germont is tremendous. He instills fear, but also shows tenderness and understanding to both Violetta and his son. He's resolute, though, and that proves to be everyone's downfall. Gabriel Reoyo-Pazos is the faithful Alfredo. He's madly in love and when it's returned he's warm and loving. The passion boils over in jealousy when he thinks Violetta has left, but he returns so she can die with her loved ones at the end.

Valery Ryvkin is almost Wagnerian in his direction of the orchestra. He has long deliberate passages that let the music breathe, and builds to powerful climaxes that drive the passion home. I don't think I've heard Verdi performed qluite like it before, and I love it. You hardly even notice the oom-pah-pah's.

While I'm admittedly a partisan of Wagner and Russian opera, this is easily the best "La Traviata" I've ever seen. The Santa Barbara Grand Opera performances continue at The Lobero Theater Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.


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