Stage Door Review

La Traviata

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

✭✭

by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by Arin Arbus

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

April 23, May 1, 3, 7, 12, 18 & 20, 2022

Alfredo: “Io vivo quasi in ciel”

The Four Seasons Centre has not hosted an opera live and in person since February 2020. A reimagined Madama Butterfly in February 2022 was to have reopened the venue, but the Covid pandemic prevented it. Thus it is Arin Arbus’s production of La Traviata, first seen at the COC in 2015, that has reopened the FSC, and, as destiny would have it, a better opera for the occasion and better production of it could not be imagined. The opera’s subject matter of the death of a young woman by an incurable disease in a world she views as “Questo popoloso deserto” (“this populous desert”) now has a strange new immediacy and resonance. With superlative music-making by both cast and orchestra, the creative team’s thoughtful design and Arbus’s sensitive direction, this is by far the best of the four Traviatas the COC has presented since 1999.

In my review of the production in 2015, I wrote at length of the virtues of Riccardo Hernandez’s set and Cait O’Connor's costume design. In 2015 the main flaw with O’Connor’s design was her puppets of bull skeletons at Flora’s ball that seemed to signal Arbus’s theme of death’s omnipresence too heavy-handedly. In 2022 they feel even more out of place in view of Arbus’s subtlety everywhere else.

Yet, more should be said of the virtues of Marcus Doshi’s lighting. In concert with Arbus’s insight that Violetta is already disenchanted with the grotesquerie and insubstantiality of Parisian society, so well brought out by Hernandez and O’Connor, Doshi’s lighting design is expressionist, i.e. it reflects the point of view of one of the characters. Since the action begins with Violetta, Doshi’s lighting reflects her view. What we see then is a world of shadows. Doshi has placed lamps near the floor of the stage so that in the ball scenes of Act 1 and Act 3, the chorus casts huge shadows on the curved back wall of the set. In Violetta’s windowless room of Act 4, Doshi has placed lamps behind the back wall so that we see the chorus playing revellers at Carnival passing as eerie, gigantic shadows across that wall as if in Violetta’s imagination.

Too often directors approach the story as if it were merely about the sad death of a party girl who has finally found love. In Arbus’s production Violetta, who sees Paris as “Questo popoloso deserto” is never fully light-hearted. Even in the famous drinking song “Libiamo”, she sings that love is “un fior che nasce e muore” (“a flower that blooms and dies”). By emphasizing that Violetta, who is attending her first ball after a long illness, is aware of the transience of all things, the character comes off as much more perceptive and much more reflective than is usually the case.

Because of this we can better understand how she can leave Paris behind for life in the country and how she can agree to Germont’s argument that her relationship with Alfredo will harm not just him but all his relations, especially his sister. In Arbus’s hands the opera becomes more of a struggle between Germont and Violetta than an opera about Alfredo’s love for Violetta. Germont even calls Violetta his daughter toward the end thus aligning the story with the pattern of father-daughter relations in Verdi’s other operas.

The themes of sacrifice, forgiveness and the inevitability of death all come to the fore to make Verdi’s opera far more profound than a melodrama as it is usually played. Arbus’s production is a model of how a director can create a vibrant new production of a familiar opera, not by forcing a concept onto the work, but by exploring the elements of the work itself more deeply.

The COC has assembled an extraordinarily fine cast. Chief among these is Amina Edris, born in Cairo but raised in New Zealand, whose lush, dark-hued soprano remains silken even in its highest notes. She gives an absolutely stunning performance. For Edris singing and acting are one. She has the most wonderful way of singing Violetta’s coloratura runs not as showpieces but as illustrations of Violetta’s flights of imagination. When Edris repeats a run, but more softly, she gives the impression that Violetta is musing on what she has just sung.

This, of course, fits in perfectly with Arbus’s image of Violetta as deeply reflective. Edris gives such a complex portrait of Violetta that for the first time ever I found myself caught up in the final scene, which I had earlier always found manipulative. Here because of the intelligence and beauty of Edris singing and because of the circumstances that delayed the reopening of the theatres, I found Violetta’s words “Morir sì giovine, / io che ho penato tanto!” (“To die so young when I have suffered so long!”) especially piercing. Arbus thankfully has omitted all the coughing directors give Violetta to indicate consumption which in turn universalizes this young woman’s death.

As Alfredo, the young man who loves Violetta, American Matthew Polenzani sings with the kind of heroic Italianate tenor that is ideal for the role. Power and high notes are not even issues to bring up. Polenzani has an immaculate technique and gives especial care to suiting his dynamics to what the character sings and why he sings it. The main difficulty with Polenzani is that the great variety of expression that he finds in the music finds little physical outlet in his acting. His face remains impassive no matter what he is singing and his gestural language is severely limited, all of which tends to make him appear wooden next to Edris despite all his vocal subtlety. His and Edris’s voices blend beautifully in duets and one only wishes he could exude as much passion in them as dramatically as she does.

Italian baritone Simone Piazzola, who will sings his 200th performance as Germont during the opera’s run in Toronto, is, unbelievable 17 years younger than Polenzani. This fact you would never know since Piazzola is so expert at acting an older man in carriage and gesture. He has a lustrous voice, beautiful, multi-hued and velvety throughout its entire range. In his Act 2 confrontation with Violetta, his Germont is not harsh or unkind at all. We feel that Germont knows how painful the request is he is making, both for Violetta and for Alfredo, but that asking it is a sad duty he must perform. Watching this sternness toward Violetta melt away, especially after Alfredo humiliates Violetta at Flora’s party, is emotionally wrenching to watch. His performance adds to the radical critique of superficial judgement Arbus finds in the opera.

In smaller roles, all taken by strong-voiced Canadians, Midori Marsh is an especially sympathetic Annina, Gregory Dahl is a dignified Baron Duphol and Vartan Gabrielian is a compassionate Dr. Grenvil.

Despite the remarkable voices of the three principals, what makes this Traviata unmissable is the playing of the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus. To my knowledge Debus has never conducted this opera before, usually being assigned works from the Austro-German repertoire. This very fact, however, means that Debus approaches the score without any preconceptions and without any of the habits that Italian conductors use to play up the work’s sentimentality.

Debus’s approach, in fact, is the exact opposite. He maintains very precise rhythms in the ostinati that accompany the vocal lines so the emotion expressed by the singers often contrasts with the dispassionate soundworld of the orchestra, thus creating a tension between the singers and the orchestra. Debus makes the orchestra function more as a commentator on rather than a commiserator with the action as is more the case with Wagner. As a result this warhorse of an opera sound completely fresh in Debus’s hands and makes us hear one famous aria after another as if they were new. All this make this La Traviata not only a perfect introduction to the COC’s new season but also a perfect re-introduction to a familiar opera for those who think they know it well.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo and Amina Edris as Violetta; ensemble of La Traviata, Act 1; Amina Edris as Violetta and Simone Piazzola as Germont; Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo and Amina Edris as Violetta. © 2022 Michael Cooper.

For tickets visit www.coc.ca.