I had a second look at Arin Arbus’ production of Verdi’s La traviata for the Canadian Opera Company with a few cast changes.
At the centre of this world is Joyce El-Khoury in the title role, opposite Andrew Haji as Alfredo Germont and James Westman as his father Giorgio. El-Khoury is the most beautiful Violetta I’ve ever seen to grace a stage, completely believable as the statuesque creature at the centre of the story, commanding the stage at every moment. The voice was big and powerful when necessary yet often surprisingly understated.
Her surprise suitor is Andrew Haji, seemingly in total awe of this beautiful woman who might be out of his league. And when he has the temerity to declare his love to her – “un di felice”—El-Khoury suddenly sat down, seemingly stunned by the sincerity of his declarations: and I felt very much the same way. The moment signified the earliest moment in this opera that I have ever burst into tears before. I was shocked at the drama created at this moment. And yet it was all about the singing. Haji has a tone that is perfectly Italianate, very musical and yet seemingly effortless.
The third of the principals is the flawless baritone of James Westman. His suavely sung interpretation sits on the fence between being the main obstruction in the plot and being hugely sympathetic & likeable.
Tonight’s character dynamics are substantially different than those of the opening cast of Ekaterina Siurina, Charles Castronovo and especially Quinn Kelsey, who has what I’d consider an unprecedented importance in that cast. As the strongest character by far (to say nothing of the impeccable voice), Kelsey’s Giorgio Germont rules the stage, such that the story in large measure becomes about him. In contrast, the charismatic El-Khoury is very strong in her scene with Westman, when she shows a genuine kindness, looking at the portrait of Germont’s daughter. Where Siurina’s tragedy is one of being overwhelmed by the strong will & presence of Kelsey, Westman as a more sympathetic Germont, makes it seem as though El-Khoury is bravely participating in making the choice rather than being pushed. It may sound like a small distinction but this seems like a different version of the story arc, a very different sort of tragedy. When we get to the last scene El-Khoury has a kind of heroic presence, and tantalizingly sings of redemption. Siurina (and by implication Castronovo) felt to me more like someone trapped in a melodrama, someone without any will to resist, without hope and therefore whose fate was written on the wall.
Yes yes I know the story, and I’ve seen it a million times; but there are tragedies where one comes to a moment in the story that one dares to hope for a different outcome, to dream of a happy ending, even if it never comes (we may see it in King Lear, or in Madama Butterfly). Those were imaginable if not actually possible tonight in a way that they did not seem feasible in the darker story-telling via the other cast. How wonderful to have both options. I believe this second cast –in which the principals are all Canadians—gives us something more genuinely tragic, whereas the previous cast –also so very powerful & very moving—seemed to me more of the realm of melodrama than tragedy. But please don’t take that as an insult, as melodrama was alive and well in the 19th century when Verdi wrote this opera, and it may well be more authentic than a tragic reading, even if modern tastes seem to prefer tragedy—where the stories involve choice and agency—to melodrama—where the personages are helpless and have no control of events. Forgive me if this sounds academic, but i am deep in a fascinating book about melodrama.
Neil Craighead was a sympathetic Dr Grenvil, Thomas Goerz a suitably menacing Baron Douphol. Lauren Segal made an intriguing Flora, possibly the first time I wished we had a chance to find out more about this mysterious friend of Violetta. Iain MacNeil was the life of the party as the Marquis d’Obigny. As in my previous look at this production, Aviva Fortunata’s Annina and Charles Sy’s Gastone both took the stage boldly whenever they had the opportunity.
The chorus in their two scenes made these the most believable La traviata parties I can recall, vitally important to establishing the credibility of the action. Where the first is warm and joyous, the second is darkened by the plot developments hanging over the scene. And when we get to the last scene, the puppets we had seen at the party return as shadows of Carnival, possibly creatures of Violetta’s imagination rather than objective phenomena.
La traviata has eight more performances. The cast I reviewed tonight sing again Oct 30th and Nov 6th, while the other cast sing Oct 17, 21,24, 29, Nov 1, and 4. See it if you can.
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