If you don’t think you could ever sit through—never mind enjoy—an opera, you might want to test your theory and go see Pacific Opera Victoria’s February staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. POV conductor Timothy Vernon says it’s a good “gateway opera” because “it moves quickly, like an arrow. It doesn’t flag. There’s not any part where you think, ‘Ugh, let’s get through this bit.’ It’s inspired, it’s moving.” It’s also relatable, he says, and exciting: “The [libretto] framework is society life in late 19th century Paris, so it’s fun. Champagne and bubbles…who doesn’t like a party with champagne?”
In this staging, among the the tuxedos, flapper ballgowns, and glass flutes emerges a tragic tale of love in the face of social cruelty in the roaring 20s. La Traviata (Italian for “the fallen woman”) is adapted from a novel by Dumas, and has “a wonderful sense of psychology of the characters; Violetta (main protagonist, sung by soprano Lucia Cesaroni) is…a victim of incredible, hypocritical ostracism. She is willing to sacrifice the love of her life for propriety, to protect the family.”
Even though it is the most performed opera in the world, it can be challenging to find soloists for the four main roles who have a particularly specific and versatile “fach,” an opera term for the combination of a singer’s vocal range, character and timbre. The success of any production of La Traviata hinges on the casting, says Vernon. “All you need are the four greatest singers in the world,” he laughs.
Besides directing, Vernon was charged with the task to cast this sumptuous co-production with Manitoba Opera, Edmonton Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera, and Opéra de Montréal. He says his real “casting coup” is the tenor he landed to sing the role of Violetta’s young lover Alfredo—Canadian Colin Ainsworth. “He sings quite a lot of Baroque opera,” Vernon says, and has the perfect “fach” for this plum role, even though he’s never sung it before. Vernon, a Traviata veteran who has conducted over 300 performances of this beloved piece, says, “You get a different kind of buy-in when singers are new to the role. You can figure it out together. Freshen it up.”
Surtitles, a Canadian invention, are projected above the action on stage for those of us who may not be fluent in Italian, but still want to be in on every nuance of the story. Accessibility is a theme, and Vernon invites all comers. “Nobody should feel they’re going to have an estranging experience, or that you have to go and rent a tuxedo. This is an opera that anyone with any feelings at all can get right into.”
La Traviata runs February 14-24 at the Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St. Pre-performance talk one hour before curtain. For tickets, www.rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-6121.