When Perryn Leech the Canadian Opera Company general director came out before the performance of La Traviata last night, it was the first time I’d seen him in person, after several messages in the virtual world.
He spoke briefly to loud applause. While it might be too early to pronounce it as a love affair, the omens are good.
The revival of this familiar opera was very well-received.
The remainder of the run is reportedly sold-out.
Whatever we may have lost in productions cancelled and lives disrupted, Leech gets full marks for preserving the company’s infrastructure in this difficult time. Hindsight suggests Leech’s season was wisely chosen. The COC orchestra and their chorus under the firm leadership of COC music director Johannes Debus were brilliant reminders of what we’ve missed. The flamboyant visuals from Director Arin Arbus, Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez, and particularly from Costume & Puppetry Designer Cait O’Connor satisfied our ravenous appetite.
It’s ironic that we sat masked for this opera about a woman dying of a respiratory infection, as we’ve learned a lot about hygiene since the original Dumas story appeared in the 1840s. We saw a couple of people refusing to comply, including one who resisted the polite usher’s admonition to cover his huge nose with a curtly threatening “back off”. I’m resisting the urge to publish any photos I took of his nose hanging out. But I must thank the Four Seasons Centre staff for bravely seeking to enforce rules for a population who don’t always remember their manners. For the most part we were compliant, a happy resumption of theatre life complete with bravos and standing ovations.
Full marks to the audience for recognizing the real star of the show, giving their biggest ovation in an unexpected direction. While this is a love-story between Violetta (Amina Edris) and Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani) on another level the story is really about convention. Giorgio Germont (Simone Piazzola) is Alfredo’s conservative father, resisting the relationship between courtesan Violetta and his son. I believe that when this opera is done faithfully to the dramaturgy at the time of its premiere, it becomes more of a melodrama, in the classic sense of the word, remembering that in a melodrama the characters don’t have any agency, dominated by forces beyond their control. Such is the world for both Alfredo and Violetta, in spite of their attempts to find happiness. Giorgio isn’t more powerful, he’s just a mouthpiece for convention. And until the last scene, he’s blind to the true impact of what he’s demanding of Violetta, as much a passive victim in his way as any of the others.
If permitted (as we saw last night) the opera devolves into a conflict between Violetta and Giorgio, with Alfredo almost as a passive observer. For example we forgive his rudeness at the party because he was an ignorant puppet unaware of the nature of Violetta’s promise to Alfredo’s father. I think this dynamic is true to the essence of the work, especially with Piazzola’s approach. The virtuosity of singers and actors signaling to us that we are in an artificial performance may tend to obstruct the illusion of theatre. Piazzola seemed so real as a father precisely because he was stiff in his style, signifying something remarkably authentic in the theatrical illusion (and was applauded for it) even if his singing may have been less than perfect.
Soprano Edris gave a strong vocal and dramatic reading, especially in the traumatic scenes of Act II. Veteran Polenzani’s performance was a bit like a singing lesson, sometimes showing off the wonders of a true bel canto voice, sometimes delicately saving himself and always seeming to have lots of voice left.
If you can’t get a ticket to the sold-out run of La Traviata there’s always The Magic Flute.