Canadian Opera Company, La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi); Director Arin Arbus, Conductor Johannes Debus. The Four Seasons Centre, April 23, May 1, 3, 7, 12, 18 & 20, 2022. Tickets here.
What a night!
The above superlative is not hyperbole. It was indeed an opening night filled with high drama onstage and off. Ten minutes before the end of the opera, during Violetta’s death scene, there were distressing noises coming from the rear of the auditorium, calling for a doctor.
The orchestra stopped. The curtain came down. Confused, the well-behaved audience remained quiet. After what seemed like an eternity, the voice of the new COC General Director Perryn Leech came over the loudspeaker, advising the audience that the performance would resume shortly, and that “the person in distress is feeling considerably better than Violetta…”
Thankfully, the drama onstage was the fully intended kind, with the stars aligned for a terrific show. Last seen in 2015, this Arin Arbus production is the operatic equivalent of comfort food for an essentially conservative North American audience — familiar, expected, and delicious to the eyes and ears. It was a vast improvement over the almost universally disliked Dmitri Bertman production it replaced.
It didn’t hurt that the musical qualities tonight were superb, with three terrific principals, all making their COC debuts. The Violetta was taken by the sensational, fast-rising Egyptian soprano Amina Edris, who sang with glorious tone and acted with touching vulnerability, her “Addio del passato” a highlight of the evening. Let’s hope the COC will bring her back.
Matching her note for note was the ardent Alfredo of Matthew Polenzani. They had great chemistry together and made a believable pair of lovers. Now a quarter-century into his career, the American tenor is still very much in his vocal prime, singing with hall-filling, beautiful clarion tone.
His Act 2 “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” was most impressive, complete with a brilliant high C in the restored cabaletta that followed. There’s no shirking of stage action either, as his incredibly convincing fall onstage after being slapped by the Elder Germont drew gasps from the audience.
That mean father was the third debutant of the evening, Italian baritone Simone Piazzola. A classic Verdi baritone excelling in such roles as Rodrigo, Amonasro and Conte di Luna, he makes a terrific Germont, a fine balance of solemn dignity and paternal warmth, making his interactions with Alfredo and his final remorse at Violetta’s death scene very convincing. Germont’s cabaletta, generally considered not to be in the same league musically as “Di Provenza il mar” that precedes it, is almost always cut. It’s restored in this production, and Piazzola sang it with the proper gusto.
The supporting cast, made up mostly of present and former COC Ensemble members, were rock solid; with noteworthy performances from Jamie Groote (Flora), Midori Marsh (Annina), Gregory Dahl (Douphol), and Vartan Gabrielian (Dr. Grenvil). The sets and costumes were basically traditional and non-controversial, pleasant to look at and not much else, a middle-of-the-road approach matched by the stage directions.
There were a few mildly risqué touches in the Act Three bullfighting scene designed to titillate, but nothing serious or offensive. I would however take issue with Act Four set, a claustrophobic curved wall with not a window in sight. The outdoor revelry can only be suggested with some projections.
COC Music Director Johannes Debus led the orchestra in an idiomatic performance, with plenty of chiaroscuro, where the strings really shone. Given the medical emergency, two intermissions and the somewhat leisurely tempo taken by Debus, this La Traviata came in at around three hours twenty minutes, likely the longest I’ve experienced of this work in the opera house. But with such high musical values, who’s complaining? My sincere wish that the ill audience member makes a speedy recovery.
Five more performances to May 20, 2022.
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