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San Diego Rep’s latest Hershey Felder film about the premiere of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’

Hershey Felder, center, shooting his latest musical film "The Verdi Traviata."
Hershey Felder, center, as Giuseppe Verdi, films a scene in front of the Venice opera house for his latest musical film “The Verdi Traviata.”
(Hershey Felder)

Giuseppe Verdi’s “La traviata” has been recognized as the most-performed opera in the world.

Most fans know it’s the story of Violetta, a consumptive courtesan (a kept mistress for wealthy men) who sacrifices everything for her last, and impetuous, young lover, Alfredo. What they may not know is that the Italian opera composer may have had his own mistress during his 50-year marriage to Giuseppina Strepponi.

That story of of marital betrayal and the by-all-accounts disastrous premiere of “La Traviata” in 1853 Venice, are the subject of “The Verdi Traviata,” the latest musical film from playwright-performer Hershey Felder. San Diego Repertory Theatre is one of more than a dozen American theater companies co-presenting the online production, which will stream at 5 p.m. Sunday.

“The Verdi Traviata” is the third production of the second season of Felder’s “Live from Florence,” a pandemic-born streaming enterprise he launched from his home in Florence, Italy, in June 2020. The streamers are all original plays that Felder writes, directs, stars in and films at locations throughout Italy. He spoke about his latest project in an email conversation earlier this month.

For this film, Felder plays Verdi as a younger man in 1853 when “La Traviata” made its premiere at La Fenice Opera House in Venice, and in his older years at Villa Verdi, a garden estate in Busseto, near Piacenza, where he composed many of his operas and lived with his wife, retired soprano Giuseppina, from 1851 until her death in 1897.

In the 1870s, Verdi was reported to have had an affair with his muse, Teresa Stoltz, a soprano who originated the title role in “Aida” and was lead soprano in the premiere of Verdi’s “Requiem.” After Giuseppina died, Stoltz became Verdi’s companion.

“This story deals with relationships, in particular that between Verdi and his wife, Verdi and his muse, Verdi and his librettist and Verdi and the world,” Felder said. “It will be interesting to see on whose side, if any, viewers fall, as the story that we tell is relatively unknown, in that “Traviata” relates more to Verdi’s actual life, after a fashion, than previously spoken about.”

Hershey Felder as the elderly Giuseppe Verdi sits at the composer's own desk.
Hershey Felder as the elderly Giuseppe Verdi sits at the composer’s own desk during filming at Villa Verdi in Italy.
(Hershey Felder)

For the film, Felder obtained permission from Verdi’s family to film several scenes onsite at Villa Verdi. The composer’s will stipulated that nothing be changed at the home after his death, so 121 years later all of Verdi’s possessions remain exactly as he left them.

“The pianos are in the same place, the scores in the same place, his books exactly where he left them,” Felder said. “Some of the scenes that were filmed happened exactly where they happened 150 to 160 years ago. When our Verdi’s wife passes, it is in the same bed, with the same linens in the same room. When our Verdi composes ‘La Traviata,’ it is at the same keyboard, in the same room, at exactly the spot that Verdi himself composed the piece 170 years ago. When I sat in Verdi’s chair, stood at his mirror to tidy my beard, sat at his keyboard to ‘compose’ and play his piano, just the wonder of it all was one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.”

Soprano Ekaterina Siurina plays Violetta in Hershey Felder's "The Verdi Traviata" film.
(Hershey Felder)

To re-create the raucous premiere of “La traviata” — which was loudly disrupted by audience cat calls over the opera’s overweight Violetta and underwhelming male singers — Felder moved the production to Venice, where he had his piano delivered by boat.

Felder had never visited Venice before he went location scouting there last fall and said he fell in love with the ancient city and its “canal culture.”

“Venice is full of wonder and mystery, a marble town built on an underwater forest. It is remarkable, it is astonishing, and oddly, things move quite quickly on the water .. and it’s just so much fun. The result is magical … I mean, filming scenes while in a gondola as it gently ambles down a canal ... it’s a mystical experience, and knowing that Verdi did exactly the same is really something.”

The film stars soprano and actress Gianna Corbisiero at Giuseppina; actress Francesca Cellini as the Verdis’ adopted daughter, Maria; J. Anthony Crane as opera librettist Francesco Maria Piav; and Serena Barbacetto as Teresa Stoltz. Starring as the original performers in “La Traviata” are opera singers Charles Castronovo, Ekaterina Siurina and Mark Delavan. Members of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentina Orchestra are also featured.

San Diego Repertory Theatre presents ‘The Verdi Traviata’

Streams: 5 p.m. Sunday, March 27

Tickets: $50

Register online: https://bit.ly/3ikB2d9


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