By Robert Moyes
Monday Magazine contributor
Notwithstanding La Traviata’s unsuccessful debut in Venice in 1853 – the audience was memorably hostile to a plump, well-aged soprano badly cast as a young woman dying of tuberculosis – Verdi’s brilliant opera was soon hailed as a masterpiece.
It has persisted as a cornerstone of the repertoire, and these days this complex, melodically rich and emotionally powerful crowd-pleaser is the most frequently performed opera in the world.
“This is from Verdi’s great middle period,” Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon says of La Traviata, to be performed by POV five times from Feb. 14 to 24 at the Royal Theatre. “He had honed his craft and was at the pinnacle of his ability to quickly tell a story in music. The plot moves fast … there’s no dawdling.”
Based on a play by Alexandre Dumas (son of the author of The Three Musketeers), the story centres on the love affair between Violetta, a celebrated Parisian courtesan, and Alfredo, a young bourgeois from a provincial family. Although Violetta soon abandons her life of easy virtue and is deeply in love with Alfredo, circumstances conspire against them: set against a backdrop of societal cruelty and hypocrisy, three hearts are broken by the time the opera reaches its heartrending climax.
This is the fifth Traviata that POV has presented over the years, and this version is special in a couple of ways. Conceived by Verdi as a contemporary work, the setting has been moved forward from the 1850s to the 1920s, an equally party-hearty era.
“Setting it in the Roaring Twenties should restore the immediacy of the opera, and enhance the interest of the audience,” Vernon explains. This is also a unique co-production with five opera companies from across the country, and Vernon praises the caliber of the director and designer that they were collectively able to hire.
He is also thrilled with the casting for the Victoria production: high-powered voices that will bring Verdi’s timeless tragedy soaringly to life.
“Traviata has one of the great showcase roles for soprano and I’m so excited that we’re bringing back Lucia Cesaroni,” Vernon says. “She’s a wonderful actress and her voice is extraordinary.” (Cesaroni, a POV veteran, was here most recently as Mimi in La Bohème.)
Equally impressive, he notes, are tenor Colin Ainsworth as Alfredo and James Westman as Alfredo’s father, Germont. “It’s one of those great Verdi roles for baritone.”
Having conducted Traviata over 300 times, Vernon is eager to once again embrace this “profound and delightful” Verdi masterpiece.
“It is hugely demanding to conduct,” he says. “The thrill is in the association with absolute genius.”
The performance schedule offers 8 p.m. shows Feb. 14, 16 and 22; a 7 p.m. show on Feb. 20 and a Sunday matinee Feb. 24 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available online at rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121, or in person at the Royal or McPherson theatre box offices.