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The COC’s La traviata was never meant to serve as any sort of ceremonial return to the stage, but that’s what it is.Michael Cooper/coc

There are few sounds as beautiful as the first bars of Verdi’s La traviata. These soft, fragile harmonies coming out of hushed strings are stunning when done right. Surely, after the pandemic’s stretch of silence and anticipation, these opening bars wouldn’t actually have the magical quality that we imagine in our live-performance-starved minds. That would be setting the bar too high.

Trite as it sounds, Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus pulled magic out of the COC Orchestra on Saturday night, as the company opened its first live mainstage performance in two years. Originally due in April, 2020, the COC’s La traviata was never meant to serve as any sort of ceremonial return to the stage. Yet that’s what it is: one of opera’s near-perfect works, breaking years of silence with famous tunes and the kind of catharsis you can only get from Verdi.

This production by Arin Arbus, co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, last went up at the COC in 2015, and it ages well largely by staying out of its own way. Amid the delicious details in Riccardo Hernandez’s sets and Cait O’Connor’s costumes and puppets, our attention is always on the story of Alfredo and the courtesan Violetta.

Verdi showed his progressive bent when he wrote La traviata, an opera that humanizes a sex worker and shows the infuriating societal burden that’s placed on women – specifically, those deemed not good enough to marry. On my more cynical days, I marvel at how La traviata is still true, at least when it comes to men dictating the lives of women. That angle comes through acutely in Arbus’s La traviata, and it’s thanks to the big get of the performance run: star tenor Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo Germont.

His debut with the Canadian Opera Company offered the most thrilling sounds of the night. Polenzani, a staple at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, truly filled Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre with his throaty tenor, boasting an enormous range of affect, and offering up a top-notch high C in the second act.

He also brings a remarkable new take on one of opera’s most well-known characters. His Alfredo pops immediately; we understand the young man who’s too shy to talk to Violetta, the woman he adores, and we start to root for him. In a brilliant dramatic move, he leans into Alfredo’s timidity in order to lay the extremely familiar groundwork of an insecure man who teeters into jealousy and anger.

It was a gorgeous foil to Amina Edris’s Violetta Valéry. Edris, another debut, stepped into her role with a rich sound and a softness in her demeanour; the effect was more of the courtesan between shifts, the real Violetta who knows her health is failing and who needs to talk herself up before going to work. Edris brought the same care to her singing, showing off incredible detail work in her most agile moments. She spends two acts offering up truly gorgeous colours, earning herself the right to vocal risks in the third act that pack an emotional punch.

As Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father and reciter of some of opera’s most infuriating lines, Italian baritone Simone Piazzola is another new presence on the COC stage. There’s real beauty in Piazzola’s sound, sometimes dampened by a sense of tension onstage. His rendition of Germont’s too-little-too-late remorse in Act III elicited a surprising amount of sympathy for the old white man.

Even with the three debut artists, everything about this opening night felt like a family reunion. The COC Orchestra was taut and shimmering with Debus on the podium, and under the direction of chorus master Sandra Horst, the COC Chorus brought precision and personality to the bustling crowd scenes.

There was a brief moment of alarm well into the Third Act, when a member of the audience appeared to collapse and calls rang out in the house for a doctor. After a short pause – just enough time to discuss the phenomenon of art mirroring life – it was announced that the audience member would be fine, and in the words of general director Perryn Leech, was faring “considerably better than Violetta.”

Maybe it’s the opera starvation speaking, but I kept craving more: more unbridled singing, tighter pacing, even wilder party scenes. It’s hard to say if those things were truly missing, though, or if there was an unfair expectation placed on one production, as though it could stand for two years’ worth. Still, this La traviata is a joy to see onstage, and Torontonians should snag the rare chance to hear Polenzani live.

The COC’s production of La traviata runs at the Four Seasons Centre on May 1, 3, 7, 12, 18, and 20, 2022.

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