Confession time: I am both an opera fan and a baseball nut. If that sounds odd to you – I’ve always said that baseball and opera have lots in common. For one thing, both are incredibly long (!), with lots of statistics – home runs versus high C’s – and both have the tendency to attract lots of fanatics! But I digress…. It was tough for me to give up watching Game 1 of ALCS between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals on TV last evening so I could attend the opening night of the alternate, all-Canadian cast of La traviata at the Four Seasons Centre. Well, it turned out I made the right decision. Thanks to my trusty smartphone, I was able to check the score during the two intermissions. While the Jays’ bat turned silent last evening – held scoreless with just three hits – the Canadian singers proverbially “Hit It Outta The Park” as they say!
Last evening was the first of three performances starring an all Canadian cast in the current 11-show run. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury is Violetta, tenor Andrew Haji sings his first-ever Alfredo, and the veteran baritone James Westman is Germont. I’ve followed the career of these three artists for many years, particularly Haji and Westman since they were at the U of T Opera School, James in the 90’s and Andrew just a few short years ago, and I’ve written several articles on these two gentlemen. I got to know the voice of AVA-trained Joyce El-Khoury about five years ago, and interviewed her at – of all places, Pearson Airport! – for an article in Opera Canada. So it was immensely pleasurable to hear all three of them together in the same show, in an evening of superb music-making.
La traviata stands and falls on the strength of its heroine. It was Toronto opera lovers’ great good fortune to have not one but two great sopranos in the current run. To be sure, the Russian Ekaterina Siurina and the Canadian Joyce are two totally different singers, so comparing them is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Both Violettas, while different, are valid and true.
Siurina has a lighter lyric sound, a compact-sized instrument that’s beautiful and smooth. She brings an unusually soft and vulnerable, Gilda-like quality to Violetta. El-Khoury’s Violetta is what we are more used to, her instrument a youthful lirico-spinto, with a kaleidoscope of tone colours, from the ethereal, Montserrat Caballe-like pianissimi to full-throat forte, not to mention an exceptionally long breath-line. Her exquisite pianissimo high A at the end of “Addio del passato” was held longer than anyone I’ve heard, and the tempo was slow! El-Khoury fully embodies the role, with lots of nuances in her characterization – playfulness, womanly warmth, fierce passion, defiance, dignity, pathos, and finally resignation that fits so well with the ultimate tragic end. It was a performance to honour and enjoy.
Tenor Andrew Haji, in his first-ever Alfredo, brings his beautiful, bright, sweet, and aristocratic lyric tenor to Alfredo, one of the lighter Verdi tenor roles. His Mozart roots are still in evidence, and it works surprisingly well as Alfredo. His elegant timbre is more lyrical than the baritonal and robust tenor of Charles Castronovo, who sang a very fine Alfredo on opening night. White wine or red – the choice is yours! Haji is a big guy, but he’s also a very fine actor, moving well on stage and offering a most ardent and endearing characterization. He’s a singer who’s going places, and last evening marked a most auspicious role debut. I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future.
Of the three singers, baritone James Westman is the most experienced of the three principals, and a voice I know best. Now nearly 20 years into a career, Westman can be safely considered a “veteran” these days! I first heard him back in his student days in the mid 90’s at U of T. It’s great to see him develop over the years as a singer and an artist. Germont is one of his signature roles, one that I have seen many times, including at the English National Opera. His baritone has matured with time, grown stronger but keeping its warmth and its Italianate timbre. His top register, always its glory remains clarion and undiminished. This production opens all the cuts, which allows Westman to sing the optional high notes in his scene with Alfredo in Act 2. The father-son encounter found both singers in top form, and it was a highlight of the evening.
I’ve covered the rest of the show in my previous review of opening night for Musical Toronto. Suffice to say the conducting of Maestro Marco Guidarini was truly masterful, with an unhurried tempo that allowed the singers to breathe, an altogether idiomatic reading of this most inspired score of Verdi. (He was of course well remembered in his last appearance at the COC conducting Simon Boccanegra a few seasons back.) I loved the many COC Ensemble members (present and former) who sang the cameo roles, from the sassy, Carmen-like Flora of mezzo Lauren Segal, to the terrific (if under-utilized) Annina of Aviva Fortunata, to the suave and warm Gastone of Charles Sy. Even tiny roles like Giuseppe (Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure) and Marquis d’Obigny (Iain MacNeil) were cast from strength. The romantic production by Arin Arbus was beautiful to look at and deftly directed, with stylized touches but respectful of tradition. This is the kind of production aesthetic that might be perceived as rather old fashioned in Europe but entirely right for North American audiences.
There you have it, a most enjoyable evening in the opera house. It should be noted that the three principals had very little rehearsals and no dress rehearsal – this performance was really their final dress. It is a testament to their musicianship and professionalism to have given such a superlative performance under such conditions. There are eight more performances, including two with the Canadian cast. Not to be missed.