I might as well come out: La Traviata is—together with Don Carlos—the best thing Verdi ever did. Even though it’s an opera in which the Fallen Woman is tortured, accepts greatest self-sacrifice, and dies so that we the audience, and her torturers on stage, can realize that her moral behaviour is superior to those of the more widely accepted bourgeois pater familias’. Even so. Taken line by line, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave has poetry, truth-telling and intelligence to burn, and that’s 160 years later. Acts 1 and 3 especially are doing well, the middle act likelier to show its age and melodramatic roots. The “E strano…Sempre libera” in Act 1, in which Violetta probes, rejects, embraces love in turns is a mini-act in itself, every line meaningful, and equally of our time as of Verdi’s. Every line, too, married to music just about perfectly. There are some cadenzas that singers who don’t give it their all can leave appearing illogical but that in the hands of great singers make perfect emotional rollercoaster sense.
In her house debut, Ekaterina Siurina was a fine and correct Violetta, if not entirely commanding or emotionally shattering. I had the impression she was somewhat reserved, keeping quite a bit of herself to herself. The production could not have helped: Arin Arbus’s reduced-traditionalist approach alas did not reduce the volume of the hoop skirts nor the elaborateness of the wigs and the headwear. In “E strano”, Siurina needs to go through the slew of conflicting emotions and criss-cross the stage while wearing a big wig chignon and a tiara, an unnatural constraint to her head in a scene of emotional directness calling for naturalism. She is—and so are we—luckier in the final act where she wears a nightgown and is much freer in her movement and much more expressive. Conductor Marco Guidarini with the COC Orchestra struck a perfect tempo for “Addio del passato”, drawn out, but not too drawn out; melancholy, while still serene; acquiescent, with a tragic tinge of hopefulness. Considering the opera as a whole, Siurina’s voice had the odd moment of unevenness and disappearance under the orchestra, but was reliable and pretty overall. Joyce El-Khoury is sharing the role and it’ll certainly be worthwhile going again to see what she makes of Violetta.
Act 2 in many ways belongs to the two male protagonists, the tenor and his baritone father, excepting the brief “Amami, Alfredo” farewell by Violetta. Germont the Father visits the two love-doves in their country house, and skilfully blackmails Violetta while seeming to appeal to her compassion. She decides to comply and leave Alfredo upon his request, so Alfredo’s younger sister, “an angel”, could marry her suitor, reportedly reluctant to have anything to do with the family in which the son lives in sin with a former courtesan. As is his wont, Quinn Kelsey was excellent as Giorgio Germont, making the case for the old patriarch by showing his soft spots—Verdi is to blame here, as he gives him some fairly lyrical music amidst the predominantly solemn and menacing colours.
Tenors are the most clueless characters of any nineteenth-century opera, and Alfredo is not only slow on the uptake but bloodless, too—or let’s say, underwritten. There isn’t much to him, but the voice can save the character, and Charles Castronovo does exactly that with his ample and generous tenor, beautiful of tone, consistent, burnished in timbre. Both male protagonists sounded a size bigger than the leading soprano, but they are also not the ones singing practically non-stop for two hours, and don’t have to pace themselves.
Sets (Ricardo Hernandez) and costumes (Cait O’Connor) do the job, and rather well and inoffensively. There is some witty macabre bull puppetry at the party at Flora’s, and some gender-switching in the chorus-led story of the matador. The revelry in Act 1 and Act 2 has subtle accents of Tim Burton around the edges, but the protagonists remain traditionally clad. The final act set is particularly effective, as it lays bare the depth of Violetta’s solitude and her diminished means.
It’s a good production to take an opera novice to, faithful to the letter of the libretto, and probably the crowd-pleaser of the season. Unlike the Rossinis and Bellinis of yesterseasons, however, this crowd-pleaser has Verdi and Piave at the top of their game, and Arin Arbus’s production that, if not exactly adventurous, never for a moment gets tedious or lazy. We should count our blessings wherever we can.
Photos, both by Michael Cooper, show Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina. La Traviata continues until November 6: tickets, dates and alternating casts here.