The premiere was a crushing disappointment. By the time Act III finally arrived, the audience had lost all interest in Verdi’s new opera. The heroine’s harrowing deathbed demise was greeted by a resounding chorus of catcalls and jeers. The composer had been plagued by nagging premonitions of disaster since arriving at La Fenice in the late winter of 1853 for rehearsals. Principals were ill-cast and the libretto scandalous even by sexually emancipated Venetian standards. Verdi was shaken. He had had his share of catastrophic openings before. His first commission, a comedy, Un giorno di regno, had been greeted with spectacular indifference seven years earlier. A pair of action dramas, Alzira and Il Corso, had been scorned. Stiffelio, gutted by censors, was largely ignored. But the failure of La Traviata, a project that had obsessed him, felt harsher, more malicious.
Somehow, yet again, Verdi fought back his despair, shrugged off the critical sniping and sparse box office receipts as best he could and moved on. A year later, score rewritten, singers recast, La Traviata reopened in Venice. The freshly renovated work was a hit. “Then it was a fiasco; now it has created a furor,” Verdi wrote to a friend, recalling its traumatic debut. “Draw your own conclusions.”
In a sensitive new mounting of Italian Grand Opera’s arguably most durable tragedy, a co-production of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera, the Canadian Opera Company evokes all the eternal flavour and substance of Verdi’s classic masterpiece. Confidently staged by rising off-Broadway director Arin Arbus, this lavishly costumed, starkly set period La Traviata traces the parameters of librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s tearful romance in meticulous detail.
Based on a sensational play of the period, La dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, Piave’s sprawling, clear-eyed adaptation weaves a tortured tale of wrenching operatic proportions.
Sparkling playgirl Violetta Valéry is hosting another of her wildly popular fêtes in her luxurious Paris home. Included in the crowd of giddy guests is a handsome visitor from Provence, Alfredo Germont. Emboldened by wine, the nervous newcomer summons the courage to approach his charming hostess. A sudden, alarming weak spell betrays Violetta’s ill health. The revellers party on obliviously. Seized with worry, overcome with infatuation, Alfredo pours out his love. Violetta gently rebuffs him, presenting him with a flower to be returned when it has wilted. Alfredo exits hopefully. Violetta’s indifference slowly dissolves. The young man’s devotion has stirred similar emotions long suppressed within her. Struggling with her desperate need for independence, Violetta battles with a torrent of conflicted feelings.
Time passes. Violetta has abandoned her freewheeling lifestyle in Paris for a house in the country and the warmth of Alfredo’s embraces. Her worshipful young lover is euphoric until he accidentally learns from Annina, Violetta’s maid, that her mistress has been forced to sell off her possessions to support them. Disturbed and ashamed, he sets off for Paris to raise enough money to reimburse her. No sooner has he left when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, pays a surprise visit. At first his manner is harsh but he quickly realizes that Violetta is not the grasping fortune hunter he had expected to encounter. Deeply impressed by her dignity, the elder Germont begs her to sacrifice her happiness for the sake of his family’s honour. Her liaison with Alfredo threatens to jeopardize his daughter’s chance of a respectable marriage. Under relentless pressure, Violetta ultimately surrenders to Père Germont’s plea. Fighting back her tears, she writes a letter to Alfredo, the one true love she has ever found. Only when the farewell letter is handed to him by a messenger does Alfredo realize that she has left him to resume her past life in Paris. Alfredo’s father pleads with his son to return to the security of hearth and home but his son is in no mood for homilies. Furious and uncomprehending, he rushes off to confront Violetta, ultimately tracking her down at her friend Flora’s rowdy masquerade ball. Violetta begs Alfredo to leave. Baron Duphol, her former lover, a violent, jealous man, has reinstated his protection in return for her favours. Unheeding, blinded by rage, Alfredo flings a fistful of banknotes at Violetta, bitter payback for the money she has lost covering their oppressive debts. The Baron steps forward and challenges him to a duel.
One month later. Violetta lies dying of consumption. Dispatching Annina to distribute a few of her last coins to the poor, she seeks solace from her pain and suffering by re-reading a letter from Père Germont. Having wounded the Baron, Alfredo has fled the country but promises soon to return to her side to beg for forgiveness. His father has told him everything. Staggering to a mirror, Violetta is shocked by her frail, ashen appearance. Annina bustles into the room, bursting with excitement. Alfredo has arrived! The lovers, briefly reunited, share a last, bittersweet dream of a new life together. Suddenly, Violetta collapses. Good Doctor Grenville is summoned but he is powerless to save her. Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms.
Verdi clearly had pressing issues with mid-nineteenth century Italian society. That he was deeply resentful of any probing into his personal life is well documented. His unmarried live-in relationship with retired soprano, Giuseppina Strepponi, was the subject of endless scandal-mongering. His instant attraction to Dumas’ stage work, a discovery reputedly orchestrated by his indomitable mistress, sparked his determination to strike a very public blow against the tide of self-righteous judgement he had personally experienced.
Paradoxically, Giuseppe Verdi, liberal idealist, was an intensely private man. Operas like La Traviata may very well have encompassed pressing socio-political themes, but they were always voiced in distinctly subtextual tones. His genius and that of able collaborators like Piave was his seemingly effortless ability to break our hearts.
Set in Paris during the Second Empire, the modern age when Verdi was composing, the new COC La Traviata radiates authenticity. But the current iteration is no stale museum piece. The depth of characterizations, the intensity of human drama, the artfulness of its design all combine to convey an air of resonant timelessness.
Musically, the production is equally transcendent. Spirited and colourful as Verdi’s score may be, La Traviata is still fundamentally a classic number opera built on a distinctive formula. An expository recitative voices the conflict at hand. A languid cavatina is sung. An abrupt change of pace sweeps through the scene — breaking news arrives, oaths are sworn, decisions made. A boisterous cabaletta ramps up the emotional quotient. The vocal pattern is essentially unwavering, applied and re-applied as the opera unfolds, each entrance of a fresh character igniting another round of bel canto fireworks. That the COC’s remarkable trio of principals so soundly dispels any and all suggestion of predictability is additional proof of this La Traviata’s freshness.
Violetta, sung by Ekaterina Siurina, has seldom seemed so strong, so vulnerable, so startlingly real. Employing a multitude of discreet gestures, fluid physicality, unambiguous posture and pose, the sensational Russian-born soprano shines a spotlight into the darkest recesses of Violetta’s soul. What we see is a woman torn in two, hardened by abuse, distrustful, fearful of her own emotions yet unwilling to discard them. Care and compassion run in deep channels within her. When love is forced to the surface, she is as confused as she is thrilled. This is a magical performance, sensitive, perceptive, illuminating. Siurina’s singing is extraordinary, decorative and virtuosic at times, dramatic and spinto in darker pieces. Violetta’s illustrious suite of Act I vocal pyrotechnics, introduced by a series of sensational runs during Alfredo’s Un di felice (“One day, happy and airy”) climaxing with the double showstoppers, Ah, fors’è lui (“Ah, perhaps he is the one”) and Sempre libera (“Forever free”) are delivered with unsurpassed elegance.
Singing the besotted Alfredo, American tenor Charles Castronovo brings great polish and charm to the role. There is palpable warmth and affection between La Traviata’s fabled lovers on show here, undoubtedly a function, at least in part, of the real-life relationship of Castronovo and Siurina as husband and wife. Gentle and fiery in equal turn, Alfredo’s emotions lie close to his nerve endings beneath a layer of perilously thin skin. Castronovo’s performance is a triumph, a masterful orchestration of impulsiveness and desire. His voice rings with all the tumultuous passion of a young man ambushed by love. Bell-like top notes combine with a rich chest voice in countless pitch perfect displays of splendid passaggio. His De’ miei bollenti spiriti (‘The violent fire of my youthful spirits”), Alfredo’s ringing ode to joy, concluded by a breathtaking cadenza, kicks Act II into high gear.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey is Giorgio Germont, his pivotal interaction with Siurina’s Violetta, an unquestionable highlight of the show. Preying on the long-exploited courtesan’s every frailty, the status-obsessed patriarch bullies his way to victory, forcing a brutal sacrifice from both Alfredo and the woman who adores him. Their happiness is nothing compared to the sanctity of the well-bred family. Vibrant and sonorous, Kelsey’s voice exudes authority, his lower register fathomless, his mid to top rock solid. A lovelier Di Provenza il mar (“The sea and soil of Provence”) defies memory.
A gifted cast of comprimari populates Violetta’s Parisian haunts. Lauren Segal as Flora, Ian MacNeil as Marquis d’Obigny, Charles Sy as Gastone, James Westman as Baron Douphol, Robert Gleadow as Dr. Grenvil, all make vivid appearances.
The Canadian Opera Chorus stirringly partners soloists as frenzied merry-makers in director Arbus’ rollicking party scenes. Under the steady baton of conductor Marco Guidarini, the COC Orchestra glides through La Traviata’s gorgeous liquid score.
Period costume opera has tended to be considerably less than commonplace on the COC’s Four Seasons Centre stage in recent years. La Traviata, on view until early November, presents a compelling case for genuineness and clarity, precious vintage qualities that never get old.