Saturday, April 8, 2017

'The most popular opera in the world' — big & full & lush

La Traviata, it's said, is "the most popular opera in the world." It's often said with a bit of a sniff, as if its very popularity is a negative thing.

I do like it, as it happens, and I've liked it for a long time. I first became familiar with it when a boyfriend gave me a long-playing album of the orchestral version — no singing. I was a Montreal General Hospital student nurse, at that time doing an affiliation at the Montreal Children's Hospital. We were sitting in a restaurant near the old Montreal Forum and when he gave it to me and I read the title, I really had no idea what it was.

I can't remember where I first listened to the record — I'm pretty sure there were no record players in the public areas of our residences — but I listened to it somewhere because over the years, it became very familiar. Eventually, I preferred the opera with the singing included but I kept this record until very recently, when we moved and parted with all the hundreds and hundreds of LPs in our collections.

The music of La Traviata is big and full and lush. The singing is emotional and sensual. Productions of this opera usually match all those descriptions with colour and elaborate costumes and grand sets. They're often described as sumptuous or florid.

The Metropolitan production of 1957, starring Renata Tebaldi, was one example.

A production in Rome in 2009 was another example:

On a recent Saturday afternoon, we saw it Live from the Met with — as they like to say — "audiences around the world . . . when it simulcast the matinee to over 2,000 theaters in some 70 countries as part of its Live in HD series."

Sumptuous and florid, it was not. I thought this review described it well:

The curtain rises on a mostly bare stage with a huge semi-circular wall stretching from wing to wing and a curved bench placed in front of it. A gigantic clock leans against the wall at stage left and a man dressed in black, with white hair and stubbly beard, sits on the bench next to the clock, hands on his knees, staring off into space as though waiting for someone to arrive.

He, of course, represents Death, or one of his henchmen, and he will stalk Violetta throughout the opera, popping up unobtrusively in various scenes until the final one when he (played by James Courtney) sings the small part of the doctor attending her in her final hours.

During the Overture, Violetta herself enters wearing a bright red dress. She first collapses on the bench as though exhausted from a night of partying, then hauls herself up and staggers across the stage as though her feet hurt, kicks off her shoes, and sits next to the man.

The walled-in stage serves as the set for all scenes, allowing for both scenes of Act II and Act III to be sung without pause. Some boxy IKEA-like couches are added for Violetta’s and Alfredo’s villa outside Paris where Alfredo prances around in boxer shorts. The chorus, all dressed in black suits and ties, men and women alike, invade the stage for the party scenes, emphasizing a male-dominated society. The clock gets moved around some. It’s all very arty.

Although I'm trying to be more open-minded, it's possible that if I'd read this before I went, I might have had second thoughts. Thank goodness I didn't. I loved this production. The very starkness of the sets magnified the effect of the music, the characters, the story.

In truth though, the real star of this show (along with Verdi, of course) was the Star.

Sonya Yoncheva was so appealing. Her voice was magnificent and her acting was so heartfelt — so playful, so sexy and sad, so human. She was almost never out of our sight and her energy never flagged. It was a performance that has stayed with me and keeps popping back into my head.

The theatre, opera, ballet that we've been able to see at the Cineplex Events have become one of my favourite things. I'll come back another day and tell you about some of the other wonderful productions we've seen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A photo project, a Mrs. Enid sighting & rubber leg syndrome

The Halifax Public Gardens are closed in the winter. I had never given that much thought until we moved across the street. I'm glad they're closed; it looks so restful over there. As the snow comes and goes, the flower beds and the paths change shape and direction. The pond freezes and snow covers it. The temperature goes up and it's open water again. The Gardens are filled with exotic plants, rare trees, tropical shrubs, and they need this peaceful break.

On the first day of Spring, we started one of those projects you so often read of other people doing. We decided to take a photo every day at the same time (approximately) of the same view for a year. Dan wanted to get fancy and buy a tripod and do it "properly" but I wanted a more casual project. We'd just go to the window and take the picture. We decided on a view that includes the Public Gardens and Citadel Hill.

Because I usually try to be near the window at noon, to see/hear the Noon Gun from the Citadel, that seemed like a good time to take the picture. (I separate "see" and "hear"because even though the gun is not far away, there's an obvious pause between when we see the puff of smoke and when we hear the boom.) So far, we've done the photo every day. A couple of times, we were going to be out so we took the photo early but that's to be expected.

A couple of days ago, I was waiting at the window and scanning the surrounding area when I noticed people walking inside the Gardens. They didn't look like intruders so I assumed they were City workers. One fellow set up a tripod and I thought maybe they were going to be doing some surveying.

Then I noticed there were a couple of women with them, women who looked a bit familiar. There was something about those cloth coats, the little hats, the fur-trimmed snow-boots, the handbag hanging over the arm. "I think that's Mrs. Enid," I said to Dan.

Regular viewers of This Hour has 22 Minutes will recognize the wonderful Cathy Jones. Mrs. Enid is always seen trudging somewhat tiredly down a path in a park, expounding on life. She used to do it regularly with Eulalia — played by Mary Walsh — but I don't think it was Mary with her this time. I'll wait for the program. It was a cold windy day and the way TV is, for a five-minute skit, they were there for at least two hours.

There was one more little drama to play out that day. Just before 7:00 p.m., there was a fire alarm. It was very very loud — quite alarming, in fact — and the cats didn't like it at all. Me either. We didn't know what the protocol was in a situation like this so we opened our door and went out into the hall. The only neighbour out was the young man who lives next door. He looked pretty relaxed and said since he's lived here, there have been a couple of such events and they were both false alarms. He thought he'd wait and see if anything happened.

We decided maybe we'd better head down. I put on my winter jacket and boots and grabbed my phone, my keys and a pair of gloves. So much for, "What treasures would you rescue if you were escaping a burning building?" We told the cats we'd be right back and we hit the stairs.

Now remember, we live on the 17th floor — that's our building on the left. Count four balconies down from the top and that's us.

It was awful in the stairwell. There was a wind blowing through there. It was echo-y. People kept joining us as we went down — old people, young people, families, some with babes-in-arms. In one family, two parents and two small children, both adults carried a violin. They knew what to grab on their way out.

I found it very hard. I couldn't set my own pace because there were people ahead of us, people behind us. I didn't want to be the one who broke the rhythm. I was very thankful for the railing which was continuous and steady.

We did eventually find ourselves in the lobby which was full of people and tiny dogs. The alarm was still clanging and when it stopped, the cacophony continued because those little dogs hadn't been able to hear themselves before. They had to make up for lost time. The firetruck was in front of the building but after about five minutes, the firefighters came through the lobby and they declared the all-clear. False alarm. Dan left and went off to a lecture where he'd been headed when all this started, our building manager opened the elevators, and I took the liberty of going ahead of a parade of little dogs and got on the first elevator.

By the time I reached the apartment, my legs felt as if they were made of rubber. I was very glad that we didn't have to walk up the stairs but who knew going down all those stairs would be so hard? At the risk of sounding like a cliché, I honestly did use muscles in my legs that I didn't know were there. My legs were very sore for a couple of days and I will head back to the treadmill so I'll be more prepared if the occasion arises again.