By Nikita Gourski
The gowns, the romance, the tragedy! La Traviata is an opera filled with the passion and pathos opera is known for, but did you know that it stands for so much more? Check out our top 11 things you need to know about Verdi's romantic epic, La Traviata, and get your tickets before it's too late!
From the 1830s until his death, Verdi was the reigning opera composer in Italy. Over the course of his career the art form underwent significant changes, including shifts in preferred subject matter, staging conventions and techniques of composition. Verdi was front and centre in driving many of the innovations that modernized Italian opera.
La Traviata is based on the French play La dame aux Camélias (1852) by Alexandre Dumas fils, which the author had adapted for the stage from his own best-selling novel of the same name (1848). Dumas’ play attracted Verdi’s attention because it offered a new and invigorating realism. In this story, morality did not necessarily triumph, the scale was intimate and personal, focusing on people’s private lives, and the characters and situations were recognizably contemporary, speaking to all manner of issues that were relevant to, and vigorously debated by, the public in mid-1800s Europe. As Verdi wrote to a friend, it was “a subject of the times. Others would not have done it because of the conventions, the epoch, and for a thousand other stupid scruples.”
Verdi fought, but lost, to have La Traviata set in the present day—he wanted the sets and costumes to be continuous with the clothes and rooms of his 19th-century audience, as the opera depicted a part of their quickly changing, heady cultural world. But wherever Traviata was staged during Verdi’s life, censors and theatre managers demanded that the time period be pushed into remote history—around 1700 was the preferred chronological remove—to dilute the shock and social critique inherent in the work. Its relevance to contemporary society was not lost on audiences, however, as evidenced by denunciations of La Traviata in many cities and countries. After its English premiere (1856), for example, The Times protested against the opera’s “foul and hideous horrors,” and sale of the English translation of the libretto was forbidden in the U.K.
La Traviata’s premiere on March 6, 1853 at the La Fenice opera house in Venice received decidedly mixed reviews. The next year, staged in another theatre and with some alterations to the score by Verdi, La Traviata triumphed magnificently, and has only grown in popularity since. One unverifiable legend claims that in the last hundred years, there has been a performance of La Traviata every single night somewhere in the world.
La Traviata translates to “the woman led astray,” and Violetta is without a doubt one of opera’s most interesting examples of the “fallen woman.” As she changes throughout the opera, Verdi gives her unforgettable music that charts an authentic psychological trajectory of change and growth, making her not only of the best-loved heroines in opera, but one of the most real and complete as well.
Dumas, the author of the novel and play that served as the basis of La Traviata, really did fall in love with a famous Parisian courtesan named Marie Duplessis (1824-1847) who was the model for the doomed heroine of La dame aux Camélias, as well as Verdi’s opera. Duplessis was born in Normandy and by the time she was twelve her alcoholic father had forced her into prostitution. Three years later she came to Paris and worked briefly at a dance hall, and then gradually made her way into wealthier and more refined circles as a courtesan. In addition to her physical beauty, she was graceful and charming; having learnt to read and write, she amassed a library, read broadly, and was a smart and fascinating conversationalist. She charged extraordinary rates for appearing with clients in public and cultivated expensive tastes. Camellias, her preferred flowers, cost three francs each, roughly the daily salary of a labourer. She had many famous lovers drawn from high society, including a passionate affair with the composer Franz Liszt. Like Violetta she suffered from, and ultimately succumbed to, tuberculosis.
Unlike Rigoletto, for example, in which the music does not carry any explicit messages about the historical or geographic setting of the action, La Traviata does. Verdi quite deliberately gives us music that is infused with the local colour of Paris in the mid-1800s. He does this by using and making frequent reference to the waltz, a dance that was symbolic of the very rhythm, pace and structure of 19th-century society, especially the fringes of respectability where courtesans and other persons of doubtful morality would have been located.
Tuberculosis in the 19th century was thought to be closely connected to city-living and the moral recklessness it entailed, so Violetta’s ailment very specifically reflects her occupation and position in society. That being said, the illness also had a romantic aura. In the words of William Berger, suffering from it was the period’s “version of ‘heroin chic.’”
When Verdi was asked later in his career which of his operas was his favourite he replied “Speaking as an amateur, La Traviata, as a professional, Rigoletto.”
This production is staged by Arin Arbus—“a star in the making” (New York Times)—who sets the work in the exciting demi-monde of 19th-century Paris, a world of parties, pleasure and debauchery, which Verdi’s opera depicts with such pin-point accuracy.
Costumes by Cait O’Connor are both decadent and playful, befitting the excesses that constitute the opera’s cultural ethos. Take a closer look at the designs with costume designer Cait O'Connor here, mobile version here.
To learn more about La Traviata and to buy tickets, click here.
Charles Castronovo as Alfredo and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta in the COC’s production of La Traviata, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper.
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The 2015/2016 Free Concert Series kicks off on September 22 with a performance featuring the COC’s Ensemble Studio members. Spanning six sub-series (Vocal, Chamber Music, Jazz, Dance, World, and Piano Virtuoso), the 15/16 season is comprised of 72 concerts from September to May. We spoke with new Program Manager Claire Morley to learn more about the upcoming season.
The fact that we are able to offer over 70 concerts which feature an incredible array of world-class artists, for free—that is, in a broad sense, what makes the series so special. Our audiences are also amazingly diverse and they lend a unique energy to each and every performance, and the performers can feel that and can be very moved by it. And there’s a real sense of discovery within the series—I have spoken with numerous people who might have gone into the concert knowing nothing about the repertoire, and have come away with a newfound love for it. On the other hand, we have audience members who come to hear music they might have known for decades, and they rediscover their passion for it. I think the series allows and encourages audience members to make it a very personal experience.
It’s so hard to choose! I love hearing our COC musicians perform. Our orchestra members always present really compelling programs, and it’s such a pleasure to hear and see them in the intimate setting of the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, when we’re used to hearing them in the pit! Watching our Ensemble Studio singers is inspiring, too, because we get the chance to witness some of the most incredible rising operatic talent grow right in front of us.
I’d say some of my highlights include baritone Quinn Kelsey’s recital on October 27, when he’ll be performing Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel and Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring as well as a few Brahms Lieder. Here’s a clip of him singing “O du mein Holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (get your tissues ready!).
The Eric St-Laurent Quintet on January 12 will kick some serious butt. He’s got such an incredible technique—his playing is spellbinding.
For dance lovers, it’s hard to beat the work of visionary choreographer and dancer Peggy Baker. She and her group of incredible dancers, Peggy Baker Dance Projects, always pull an audience in immediately, keeping them transfixed. You'll be able to catch them perform on January 28.
Young dynamite pianist Kara Huber returns to the series on April 14. Kara is a stellar performer, and has a special love for contemporary music. This program will feature a world premiere by David Rakowski, written specifically for Kara. Here she is playing one of his etudes, Fists of Fury.
In May, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili sings a program of some of her favourite recital repertoire, including some rarely heard songs from her native Georgia. She’s a powerhouse!
I think it does. I’ve spoken to audience members who have told me that the series opened their eyes to something new, something unexpected, and it has led them to try out opera for the first time. Whether or not it “hooks” them is up to them, but it’s wonderful to know that they feel welcome in the Four Seasons Centre and encouraged to try out something new. Both the artists on the mainstage at the COC and the artists in the Free Concert Series all have a story to tell, no matter the art form. The Front of House team at the Four Seasons Centre has to be commended—they are a remarkable group of people who make it a top priority that everyone who walks through the front doors of our opera house feels welcome.
Photo: Claire Morley. Photo credit: Rider Dyce
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This fall we’re excited to present the world premiere of Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe in a brand new Canadian Opera Company production. We took a field trip up to the COC Scene Shop to give you an exclusive first look as the sets are being constructed in anticipation of opening night on October 20, 2015!
Three massive panels, partly inspired by the Abstract Expressionist canvases of American artist Mark Rothko, help divide the triple bill's three operas into three separate spaces, allowing the three scores to flow into each other without interruption.
The scale of Pyramus and Thisbe’s set demands a huge working space—luckily the COC Scene Shop’s converted fruit distribution factory provides the perfect space to house the multi-story wooden backdrop.
One of the identifying factors of the set, beyond its beautiful deep pine-green colour, is a long bench extending its entire length. These benches will be the chorus’s home for the majority of the opera.
When constructing a new production, many tests are undertaken to see which media best suit the theme, space and budget. For Pyramus and Thisbe, the creative team decided to use layers of acrylic paint on a heavily-grained wood in order to highlight natural textures and rich colour palettes.
After finding the perfect colour mix, the paint is applied to giant sheets of wood using brushes set on long wooden handles, set at about the angle of a hockey stick.
The paint is applied in various layers in order to achieve the desired consistency and colour throughout the multiple background and floor panels.
Because the wood is so deeply textured, the paint is absorbed to different levels, resulting in a deeper stain in certain areas.
After they are painted, the floor panels need to be allowed to dry completely undisturbed in order for the paint to come to a perfect, untouched finish.
In order to see this stunning set in its full glory (and populated with singers!), buy your tickets today for this innovative program, featuring the world premiere of Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe along with Claudio Monteverdi's Baroque classics Lamento d'Arianna and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. See you at the opera!
Photos: Kiersten Hay
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001