For all its glittery parties, and opulent furnishings, and glorious, familiar melodies, Verdi's La Traviata is the story of a sex worker. Violetta Valery, the opera's heroine, is a 19th- century French courtesan – a high-end prostitute. Verdi knew that. The censors that forced him to set his 1853 opera in the distant 1700s knew that. The audience at the premiere, scandalized and outraged, knew that.
But sometimes we forget. And the drama of La Traviata loses focus, and turns into a tragic tale of a wronged and inexplicably victimized woman.
It's true that Verdi softened the harsh outlines of the original La Dame aux camélias, the Alexandre Dumas novelette on which the opera is based. And it's also undeniable that Verdi's superb score overlays a patina of gorgeous music on its gritty story. But La Traviata is darkly dramatic, as well as full of lyrical beauty.
It's a tribute to American director Arin Arbus and her wonderful cast that the Canadian Opera Company's current production of Traviata manages to provide us both superb music and gripping theatre. It is a Traviata that's more down to earth, simpler in a way, but which consequently avoids the sentimental and melodramatic and reveals the true power of the opera in a fresh and compelling manner. More than is usually the case, this Traviata plays like a piece of intimate theatre.
Arbus has achieved this with slight, subtle touches. She has set the piece where it belongs, when all is said and done, in the mid-19th century, a time whose morality and moral hypocrisy is at the centre of the dramatic action. Traviata travels poorly to other locations and times. And she has used her background in theatre to highlight the power of the score. When Germont, the father of Violetta's lover, Alfredo, demands she give him up (to save the family from scandal), he literally backs her into a corner of the set. As he makes his imperious demands of Violetta, he stands; later in the same scene, when he speaks lovingly to his son, he sits. When Violetta, in her famous first act aria, Sempre libera, sings of her free life of unalloyed pleasure, Arbus has her lean for support on a chair, exposing her precariousness. None of these gestures by themselves amount to much. Taken together, they provide a psychologically realistic frame for the opera, which allows its inherent drama to pierce through all the big, famous tunes.
The opera's three principal singers all served Arbus's conception exceptionally well. Ekaterina Siurina was not the loudest, richest, or creamiest Violetta in memory. Instead, she used her perfect diction and fine pitch control to bring her vocal character down to our level, where her sound and acting co-existed in solid balance. Siurina could soar when necessary, and provide beautiful tone throughout her range, but the voice was put in the employ of the opera's drama, where it ultimately belongs. The production's Alfredo, Charles Castronovo, has a fine, powerful tenor, which he used to good effect to portray Violetta's headstrong, emotional, and ultimately shallow lover. Because Violetta's real foil in La Traviata, her true male partner, is not Alfredo but his father. And as Germont, Quinn Kelsey was superb. A fine actor and a powerful vocalist, Kelsey's Germont was just as conflicted and ambiguous as the character must be. In some ways, Germont's struggles in La Traviata – his guilt at forcing Violetta to give up the only love she has ever known – is as interesting as her sacrifice and suffering. The confrontation between the two of them in Act 2 of Traviata is one of the great scenes in all of opera. And behind all of the vocalists was the solid accompaniment of the COC orchestra under the direction of Marco Guidarini.
Most productions of Traviata succeed if for no other reason than the sheer beauty of Verdi's score. And the story is easy to turn into sentimental mush, certain to please audiences everywhere. But this Traviata was something different, something better – cleaner in a way, more conversational, less operatic, more theatrical. It had a beautiful sound, certainly, with fine vocal performances, but we never lost sight of the fact that a story was being told, a powerful story, which, although set in a very specific time and place, nonetheless resonates in our time with great force. We, too, have women who cannot escape the hypocrisy of our social norms, who struggle to live an authentic life. Violetta lives their tragedy as well as her own.