La Traviata takes strong singing to 1920s Paris setting at Vancouver Opera

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      By Giuseppe Verdi. A Vancouver Opera coproduction with Manitoba Opera, Edmonton Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, and Opéra de Montréal. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, October 17. Continues on October 19, 24, and 27

      To the first haunting strains of La Traviata’s prelude, a showgirl in a white-plumed headdress faces away from us, staring wistfully out a tall window. Then a spotlight finds Violetta and she turns to prance down the stage’s central, curving stairway. Heightened by the sighing, delicate strings of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, under visiting maestro Yves Abel, the scene highlights the opposing forces of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous work—death, and the will to party in the face of it.

      The local opening of this new, cross-country coproduction also announces a shift from the work’s original setting in the early 19th century to Roaring ’20s Paris. Cue Marlene Dietrich–style short-shorts, satin flapper dresses, and—yes—even a brief Charleston number. But despite the update and the tweaked opening moments, director Alain Gauthier's production remains a solid, traditionally staged rendition of La Traviata.

      The singing is strong, the conducting is dynamic and briskly paced, the chorus is powerful, and the sets and costumes by Stratford veteran Christina Poddubiuk provide plenty of eye candy—particularly in Act 3, when inspired lighting designer Kevin Lamotte sends the rays of a dawning sun through the cracks of Old Paris window louvres and onto Violetta’s deathbed.

      About all that is missing from this story of the love between high-society romantic Alfredo and the consumptive courtesan (or, in this case, showgirl) is the kind of passion that rips your heart out at the end. And it’s hard to pinpoint whether that’s a matter of sheer chemistry or of sets that lack an intimacy on the big Queen Elizabeth stage (ones that have had to work, after all, for smaller venues like Pacific Opera Victoria).

      La Traviata's sets conjure 1920s Paris.
      Tim Matheson

      For her part, Canadian soprano Emily Dorn makes the crucial, and daunting, role of Violetta feel effortless—both in music and in acting. She hoists the Champagne and sings with gusto in the first act (“I want to have a good time”), but also puts the elegant “colour” into the coloratura. What’s most interesting is her transition to the dying Violetta, not frail as you might expect, but fired up, a little pissed off at her fate, and particularly fevered—all reflected in the swift orchestrations and sustained, floated high notes. She’s probably quite close to what Verdi intended, but she feels modern in her strength, too.

      Ontarian Andrew Haji has a big, open Verdi tenor, yet he can make it sensitive and sweet, as he does with his opening aria. In some scenes, he even suggests a little shyness around his scandalous love interest.

      Baritone Chenye Yuan, as Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, cuts a grave and yet increasingly empathetic swath, anchoring some moving duets with Violetta and Alfredo.

      Tellingly for an intimate love story like La Traviata, some of this production’s highlights are the big group numbers, with the lead trio easily holding their own over the rising volume of the chorus. When a spurned Alfredo tries to humiliate Violetta in the second act’s party scene, the outraged guests summon considerable lung power as they admonish him.

      And if some rafter-shaking singing and the lavish party scenes—with their scarlet curtains, twinkling chandeliers, and endlessly flowing Champagne—connect with you more than the tragic scenes, so be it: on a rain-soaked Vancouver night, that might not be such a bad thing.

      Chen-Ye Yuan and Emily Dorn in La Traviata.
      Tim Matheson