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A wayward La traviata

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/05/2007 -  & May 8, 12, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26, 2007
Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata
Nicoleta Ardelean/Inva Mula* (Violetta Valéry), Daniil Shtoda/James Valenti* (Alfredo Germont), Alexander Marco-Buhrmester/Alan Opie* (Giorgio Germont), Buffy Baggott (Flora Bervoix), Andrew Tees (Marquis d’Obigny), Daniel Sutin (Baron Douphol), Alain Coulombe (Dr. Grenvil), Luc Robert (Gastone), Betty Allison (Anina), Lawrence Wiliford (Giuseppe), Jason Nedecky (Messenger), Andrew Stewart (Flora’s servant)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Daniele Callegari (Conductor), Sandra Horst (Chorus Master)
Dmitri Bertman (Director), Igor Nezhny (Set Designer), Tatiana Tulubieva Costume Designer), Bonnie Beecher (Lighting Designer)

The Canadian Opera Company has remounted its 1999 production of La traviata under the direction of Dmitri Bertman of Moscow’s Helikon Opera. He has many ideas (concepts? notions? whims?) about the work and seems unable to refrain from dumping them on the stage all at once.

Here’s what we see: the sets and costumes are all black, white and grey, with the odd splash of red. Most of the action with Violetta’s friend Flora and her crowd is in the present day, with most of the cast dressed as leather fetishists from the Gay Pride parade. But behind the shiny modern set another one appears, with the ghostly 19th century intruding at times from the depths of the stage. A statuesque woman in a black gown glides ominously about. This turns out to be Violetta’s maid, Anina. At each appearance her train gets longer and after a while Violetta becomes her train bearer. By the final scene Anina, while still carrying out her servant’s duties, has become an angel of death figure.

As the guests depart in Act I, Violetta falls in a faint and Baron Douphol takes the opportunity to anally rape her, urged on by Flora. Later, in the gambling scene, Flora’s servant, who is wearing a dog collar and leash, snaps a bull whip while the gathered guests shimmy in a group grope to the matador dance music. Alfredo is asked if he wants to play, and instead of referring to gambling it means that he can have sex right there with Flora, already lying down in anticipation. The subsequent “shock” of Alfredo’s angry behaviour (when he throws money at Violetta) is pretty much nullified by such libidinous goings-on. And why would a feisty modern gal like Violetta be so upset by her old beau throwing a few coins at her? Especially when her pal, Flora, is busy at all times acting out Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis?

When the stage is not crowded with a traffic jam of stylized, metaphorical movement, the three principles in the cast can actually get down to some committed portrayals, especially in the scenes at Violetta’s country house. Even here, though, there are distracting staging elements; for example, during Di Provenza, Violetta’s servant Antonio, in Robert Wilson-style slow motion, polishes the many doors in the modern side of the set. Is he eavesdropping? Do we care? In the final scene, Dr. Grenvil’s white-coated assistants repeatedly change the position of Violetta’s bed. What for? And at the start and finish of each scene a bank of white lights aimed out at the audience slides to centre stage. I first witnessed this audience-annoying gambit in the 1980s and am unpleasantly surprised it has managed to survive so long.

Some stage business earned outright laughter. When Alfredo speaks to Anina at the beginning of Act II, he uses a cellphone. Since she is in the 19th century part of the set, she is obliged to respond without one. The bullwhip also drew laughter (as well it should).

The singers: Inva Mula is a petite, pretty woman and creates a spunky Violetta. She gets through Act I with the help of some clever navigation among its many pitfalls. The rest of the work fits her very well, and in the final scene she is superlative. James Valenti is tall and lean and moves impulsively around the stage in contrast to the more louche members of Flora’s leather gang. His voice is attractive and he doesn’t bellow, croon or lunge at notes, but he also doesn’t quite have the ultimate in Verdian juice. His Act II cabaletta doesn’t really come off. Alan Opie is strong as the elder Germont. He has both a suave tone and an edgy, snarly one, which is not inappropriate for the role, but more of the suave tone would be nice. The smaller roles are all decently sung.

Daniele Callegari’s conducting never quite achieves lift-off. He seems to want a very fine chamber music approach, but the result is monochrome, much like the stage picture.

Audience response? Outrage perhaps? No. There was enthusiastic applause for the singers, but then tepid applause - mixed with booing - for the production team.

Does Dmitri Bertman think that La traviata is a faded old relic that needs rescuing? Given its ubiquitous place in the international repertoire, and the fact that all 12 COC performances were sold out before opening night, this is obviously not so. The faded relic is the play Camille, which in the English-speaking world was a theatrical staple for decades. In the 1970s it received at least two vital reworkings. Scottish playwright Robert David MacDonald conflated three versions of the story: the historical affair between Dumas and Marie Duplessis, the play Dumas created (Marie becoming Marguerite) - and La traviata. Titled Camille it contained both four-letter words and full-frontal nudity. This didn’t stop it from becoming quite the hit for awhile; for example, Canada’s Shaw Festival did it two years in a row. Meanwhile, New York-based Robert Ludlam won awards for his outrageous portrayal en travesti of Marguerite in a production by his Ridiculous Theatrical Company. This Camille also contained raunchy language and unladylike behaviour, which didn’t prevent it from being widely toured by Ludlam and his troupe. (It would probably still be playing if Ludlam had not died.)

Mr. Bertman would no doubt be happier reworking the piece a la MacDonald or Ludlam. His concept of the interplay between two centuries at once is constrained within the confines of the Piave/Verdi scenario, and it in turn loses its musical-dramatic unity. Especially in the gambling scene, the multifarious goings-on trample poor old La traviata to death. In recent years the plot of La bohème was used in the creation of a Broadway musical, Rent. Mr. Bertman would be better off persuading backers to support the creation of a new work - entitled Wayward perhaps?

There truly is a danger that a work so frequently performed as La traviata slips into a deadening routine. This production certainly avoids that pitfall, but the innovations imposed on it by and large misfire.

Michael Johnson



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