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.

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