I witnessed something rare and wonderful at the opening of the Canadian Opera Company’s la traviata at the Four Seasons Centre tonight.
It’s almost impossible to do justice to the role of Violetta that Verdi created in his adaptation of Dumas fils’play La Dame aux camellias. Across three acts we see not so much multiple personalities as multiple approaches by the composer.
- For Act I she’s a party girl, or at least she struggles to break out of that persona, while darkly asking herself if she has other options. The two part aria that closes Act I juxtaposes a melancholy cavatina (ah forse lui –ah maybe it’s him), while her cabaletta (sempre libera –always free) throws caution to the wind, embracing the party life. This is Verdi employing bel canto conventions in a bold new way. Violetta must sing difficult coloratura and some very high notes.
- In Act II we see her in a series of emotional confrontations: between her and her lover’s father (as he asks her for a huge sacrifice), and between her and her lover as she masks her emotions while affirming her love in the last moments before she dashes away from him. Verdi is writing in a bold new way, arioso that flows back and forth between characters, powerful moment answering powerful moment, powerful lines articulating emotions rather than bouncy coloratura. The second scene of this act builds to a climax followed by some very lyric singing at the end of the scene.
- While the music of Act III is much the same as Act II –more ariosos once we get past the powerful solos opening the scene— the circumstances change everything. When we present this opera in the 21st century, with our expectations of verisimilitude and authenticity, this means that although we are watching a sung portrayal, we expect something true to life, overpowering in its depiction of mortality and death.
From the bel canto coloratura of our Act I party animal to the beginnings of tragedy in her Act II confrontations & sacrifice, to her dramatic challenges in the last act, it’s a rare singer who can give us all three faces of Violetta: but Ekaterina Siurina – our Violetta tonight- did so. Hers is a voice with a rare precision, always on pitch, and a lovely tone that reminded me a bit of Joan Sutherland only smaller and clearer. Her quest for authenticity meant that the Act I aria was very intense, with a couple of thoughtful pauses that challenged conductor Marco Guidarini to adjust. While some singers will begin to talk or shout in the last act (which can be very powerful if done well), Siurina mostly sang.
This was a well-matched cast. Charles Castronovo managed to balance the poetic and the passionate in the role of Alfredo, sympathetic even in the scene when his behaviour alienates everyone on stage. The voice has a marvellous timbre that reminds me at times of Cesare Valetti in its delicate nuances. Quinn Kelsey was a reminder of what a Verdi baritone sounds like, as Giorgio Germont. While he played the part as a classically conservative but well-intended father, every note had not just vocal beauty but conviction. The scene between Kelsey and Siurina was the best thing I’ve seen on the COC stage in quite awhile.
There are many other performances, portending the immediate and more distant future of Canadian opera. From Charles Sy, seizing the stage to begin the opera as Gastone, Aviva Fortunata once again making more than expected of a small role, this time as Annina, to James Westman as a very menacing Baron Douphol, the future looks bright, especially when we can look forward to another cast taking the stage next week in the same production.
Traviata is sometimes modernized or transformed by the concept of the director and/or the designer, for instance the last version given by the COC. Director Arin Arbus, working with designs by Riccardo Hernandez (set) and Cait OConnor (costumes & puppetry), gave us a traviata set in the 1850s (when it was written) in a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago & Houston Grand Opera. I hate to sound like a conservative, but there are so many things that are lost when you modernize or conceptualize, beginning with the nuances of the performance & interpretation. Guidarini and the COC orchestra are thereby enabled to honour the music of Giuseppe Verdi in this production. I came away from the show, blown away by what felt like the three strongest lead portrayals in a COC production: because the production didn’t prevent me from noticing, didn’t once get in the way, and often amplified the beautiful performances. When I recall the last production of traviata (where for instance the baritone sang his aria sitting awkwardly on a giant futon, looking as embarrassed as a politician caught on camera in a brothel), how could one really look good, when the text was at times totally at war with the presentation? I love an illuminating production, but such directorial intervention shuts down the virtuoso, making them look somewhat ridiculous in difficult arias. How refreshing to have such a perfect match between the opera, its singing and its directorial & design concept. The COC chorus were put to especially good use by Arbus, making the opening party scene very convincing, but in every scene the text was illuminated with great clarity, even as we listened to some of the most beautiful singing i’ve ever heard in a COC production. This is an old-fashioned traviata, and may I add, if you don’t cry you should check to see if you have a heart.
The COC’s la traviata continues until November 6 at the Four Seasons Centre. Don’t miss it.