Vancouver Opera’s latest Traviata
Verdi's perennial favourite, La Traviata, opens the Vancouver Opera season. Nanc Price / PNG
When: Oct. 17, 19 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 at 2 p.m.
Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Tickets and info: vancouveropera.ca
Vancouver Opera launches its 2019-20 season with Verdi’s La Traviata. Yes, it’s a perennial favourite, but with good reason. It’s vintage Verdi, and before the story was given operatic treatment in 1853, it was a successful novel, then a stage hit which became a wildly successful vehicle for the inimitable Sarah Bernhardt.
Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man’s brief liaison with a celebrated courtesan. Verdi saw the play and realized its musical potential. It became La Traviata (“The Fallen Woman”) and it has been get-out-your-handkerchiefs ever since.
This is Vancouver Opera’s latest Traviata, but it’s director Alain Gauthier’s first. Gauthier trained in Montreal as an actor, but one with a passion for opera. He found his way into the complex, rarefied world of opera production first in Montreal, and now all over the continent. Gauthier’s La Traviata is a five company co-production; it’s already been seen in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Victoria, and will end up in Montreal in the months ahead.
Dumas was writing about mid-19th century life, but to assuage skittish sensibilities, Verdi back-dated the tale. Today’s opera companies often do the opposite, and here the action is pushed ahead to the 1920s. Gauthier told me: “When you do a co-production with five different companies, to come up with a satisfactory concept of the piece takes a lot of discussion. Ultimately, we decided to draw on the experience of Josephine Baker in 1920s Paris.” Given the work’s central conflict between propriety and the looser mores of the demi monde, Paris in the Twenties should work. (One imagines there are fathers even in 2019 who would not be exactly over the moon to learn that their son has become smitten with a sex worker.)
Gauthier is enthusiastic about the look of the production, a fairly extravagant proposition with sets and costumes by Christina Poddubiuk. Gauthier says: “As soon as I saw her drawings for previous operas, I knew she was the one.”
A hard reality about the co-production model is coming up with a staging that works in ultra-big halls like the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and its Montreal sibling Place des Arts, as well as a house as minuscule as Pacific Opera’s Royal Theatre. Gauthier had to adapt to cram the show on-stage at the Royal, and now it’s got to be opened up again for the enormous Queen Elizabeth stage. Fortunately, there is an extended rehearsal period here to make sure all goes well.
Then there’s working with five different casts. Gauthier says he has learned a lot in the process: “I’m always willing to listen to the singers I’m working with.” His overall concept remains the same, but singers bring different perspectives on their characters, which he finds enriching. “It’s difficult, of course, but it is my job to bring it all together. The big image is my concept, but then there are wonderful moments when a singer says ‘Can I show you something?’ and does something so natural that I say ‘Yes, so much better!’”
La Traviata demands a good cast and a star Violetta. Here Verdi’s consumptive courtesan will be sung by soprano Emily Dorn, making her VO debut. Violetta’s bourgeois swain Alfredo will be played by tenor Andrew Haji, who made such a tremendous impression last year in Donezetti’s L’elisir d’amore. The crucial supporting part of Alfredo’s father goes to baritone Chen-ye Yuan, also making his VO debut, as is conductor Yves Abel. Abel, the new conductor of San Diego Opera, was briefly a Vancouverite. His parents left France for Canada in the 1950s, and the family lived in Vancouver before settling in Toronto, where Abel began his career as a boy soprano.