Saturday, May 7, 2011

Verdi, Verdi Good

Although this blog is dedicated to the finer things in life, and opera is one of them, this writer finds it deliciously, comically ironic that arguably the most famous aria in La Traviata is a drinking song.

That is precisely the spirit of one of Verdi’s finest, most-beloved works, which is currently being staged by the Vancouver Opera Society. The so-called “drinking song” is a defiant celebration of one woman’s indefatigable spirit and refusal but to enjoy life in the moment, for “life is a folly” according to her worldview, without any cares for tomorrow. This is because she is one of those consumptive types in nineteenth century Paris who somehow remains full of voice and prone to fainting spells in overcrowded ballrooms. The play’s title literally means “the fallen woman”, and Violetta succeeds beautifully on this. In the opera’s first act, Violetta throws a lavish party to celebrate her recovery from a long illness, where she ends up ditching her current rich lover for a younger plaything. Fast-forward to several months later, when Violetta and the young man, Alfredo, have moved in together, akin to social suicide in those days. Like many a party girl no matter what the era, her reputation precedes her and threatens her social standing and future prospects. And since I mentioned that Violetta is consumptive, I wouldn’t spoil anything by saying that the play does not end well.

Nevertheless, there is much joy encapsulated in such a simple, uncluttered story, and Verdi knows how to keep things just a little playful in order to save the opera from drowning in sentimentality. His light touch with language is in stark contrast, although to be fair in far smaller scope, than grander-scale operas such as Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It is a story of a life misspent on capturing fleeting romantic glory in the face of impending mortality. Despite her foolish choices, the love between Violetta and Alfredo is pure and withstands social pressure and external demands. For those who arrive at this play at a young age, the arias shout love from the rooftops, economic necessity and reputation be damned! This is also the play from which the words "worthy of contempt is the man" first uttered.

It is a sad state of affairs that the arts continue to suffer. Although the Vancouver Opera’s current production is drawing rave reviews and playing to packed houses, it was announced that the Society has reported a loss for the 2010/2011 year. Thankfully, in a sign that there is a God and She is merciful, a recent gift of $1 million was made to the Opera to train young and emerging musical talent. And what did you contribute to the arts lately?

Tickets are available for the Vancouver Opera’s production of La Traviata on their website. Performances began on April 30 and continue to play on May 7, 10 and 12, at 7:30 pm nightly. The work itself is 2 and a quarter hours long, plus intermission, so although it’s a relatively short evening at the opera, it will nurture you long after. The Blogger is tickled pink that his friend, the lovely and talented soprano Barb Towell, plays a key supporting role in this version. Ms. Towell counts Verdi amongst her favourite composers.

To prepare yourself for the production or if you would like a refresher before attending, listen to any recording with Renee Fleming or Joan Sutherland in the title role. There is a remarkable production available on DVD starring Angela Gheorghiu, conducted by Sir Georg Solti and presented at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, to give a greater visual representation. And in case you’re wondering just where you may have heard a couple of the songs before in a more familiar setting, it was also the opera Richard Gere took Julia Roberts to see in Pretty Woman (you can skip to the 2:30 mark to see their arrival at the theatre).

The saying in the recent Georgia Straight review is true: a classic is a joy forever. Enrich your soul by seeing La Traviata today.