Last night was the boldest step forward yet for Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO), performing a fully staged La Traviata before a rapturous sold-out audience at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC).
I’ve been observing the artistic version of the truism “if you build it they will come”. Downtown Toronto is alive all night because of culture. Barrie’s downtown has been enriched by a decade of Talk is Free Theatre, including a performance space offering a focus to their downtown. Niagara-on-the-lake and Stratford show us how culture can transform a smaller community into so much more. Richmond Hill has a beautiful new theatre as a focus in their downtown. And now Burlington joins the growing contingent of cities and towns reviving and developing their communities with artistic attractions.
We’ve been driving through this part of Southern Ontario for awhile now, as we avoid the big bridge in preference for the views one gets closer to the water. Last night I was glad to take a closer look at BPAC, a terrific facility that enhanced our experience last night.
Seating about 700 patrons, the intimacy of the space makes for something special. I’ve talked about acoustics before. The audience shares the sound (whatever isn’t absorbed by the building envelope), so when 2600 listen to the TSO, you’re getting a smaller share than when it’s only 700. No, that wasn’t the COC orchestra last night so there may be fluffs, yet the sensuousness of the sound is glorious. The lady sitting next to me gasped during the prelude to the last scene, the plaintive violins conducted by Sabatino Vacca plus the spectacle of Karoline Podolak as Violetta dying before us overwhelming her. And me too.
Ryan Hofman—who did double duty singing and in the lobby still in his costume during intermission, in his other role promoting SOLO—explained the rationale.
The bold choice by SOLO to cast the opera with the best talent they could get meant the sweet lyric voice of Ernesto Ramirez as Alfredo Germont, the strong Verdi baritone of James Westman as his father Giorgio Germont, and Karoline’s sparkling soprano, a Traviata to please the most ardent Verdi enthusiast. And getting a partnership with Classical 96.3 (a station I usually listen to) also helped promote the production, ensuring a fully sold-out house.
Conductor Vacca wears several hats as the founder and artistic director of SOLO and also conducting the orchestra.
While it’s a community group with an amateur chorus you wouldn’t know it from the music they made, enthusiastic party guests surrounding the romantic drama of Violetta and Alfredo, directed by Vincent Thomas in a traditional staging.
Vacca made this a very authentic sounding Traviata, in favoring a bel canto approach. By now it’s rare to encounter this, given the profound impact of verismo and film on operatic presentations. By verismo I mean the kinds of Violetta we’ve seen from such sopranos as Ileana Cotrubas or Maria Callas whose approach to acting the role also changes the way the role is sung, sobbing and gasping in places. The Zeffirelli film of Traviata starring Teresa Stratas adds layers of pathos, pushing us further from Verdi’s bel canto original.
So Karoline Podolak seems impossibly alive and healthy until the end because she’s singing the work very much as written, reminding me a bit of Joan Sutherland in her ability to toss off delicate coloratura effortlessly. You sometimes hear that phrase, that an artist “made it sounds easy”, but that’s very true for Karoline, whose technique is superb. The voice has a tight focus, the phrasing truly perfect. I found myself envying Vacca, who got to work with this dream of an artist. And so it’s magical that a woman dying of a lung ailment should have such a voice, which is why we usually see singers gasping and moaning rather than singing it as written.
Ernesto Ramirez too gave Vacca the authentic sound for Alfredo. A pushed (spinto) voice is wrong for this role. It was a thrill to hear a genuine messa di voce in the soft “Parigi o cara” building steadily, so truly musical. Ernesto floats some notes, accentuating others when necessary with a big sound in the most dramatic scenes. I discussed this with a friend afterwards, comparing him to the tenor in Tosca, whose “trumpet” voice was out of tune on his two important high notes, and whose acting was rather two-dimensional. Give me a musical singer instead, particularly when he’s a Canadian.
James Westman is the key third principal, arriving in the second act to derail the story with his demands upon Violetta. James not only added his beautiful mellifluous tone both in his brilliant aria in the second act and in the ensembles that follow, but managed to reconcile the contradictions of his character, a loving father whose demands cause inadvertent destruction. I’m not accustomed to watching this and liking everyone’s character, believing the sincerity of the hugs between Violetta and Giorgio.
There were no weak spots in the cast. Daniela Agostino is a very sympathetic Annina in the last scene alongside the subdued baritone of Michael Robert-Broder’s Dr Grenvil, his softness perhaps penance for his edgier appearance in the role of the Barone Douphol. The life of the party? Perhaps Ryan Hofman as Marchese D’obigny, sounding good and having fun on either side of the curtain, or perhaps Adriana Albu’s effervescent Flora, Violetta’s BFF. Corey Arnold (whose excellent acting I’ve observed before) was a three-dimensional Gastone, making a lot out of this small part as Alfredo’s friend and fellow tenor.
I only wish there were more performances, but now that they’ve experienced a show that sold every ticket perhaps SOLO will offer a longer run next time. I hope so.
Bravissimi to these fabulous artistic. I’m thrilled, but knowing these folks, I’m not surprised. They’re all international calibre. Nothing can stop them.