Sunday, May 13, 2007

Post-Modernism dines on La Traviata

The Canadian Opera Company revived its production of La Traviata and I saw it last night. Too bad. The singing was superb, the sound of the building an architectural wonder, the orchestra excellent, the sets sometimes beautiful, sometimes puzzling and the stage directions positively hostile to the intentions of music. Every time we were about to feel something profound, the stage director would send some inconsequential figure to do some absurdly meaningless or, worse, meaningful gesture that pulled us away from what Verdi created.

It started at the Overture. A bunch of klieg lights on two floor-to-ceiling towers glared at the audience and between them a Victorian lady who seemed to double as death and who was cast, perplexingly, as Violetta’s maid! No doubt this was intended to be a social commentary on Victorian mores, the disease against which modern freedoms—oops—post-modern freedoms were to be the cure. I don’t even want to think about issues of class involved here except to say that they are far too heady to be carried on the waif-like frame of this simple and beautiful music. I suppose it’s true in a trivial sort of way, that convention brought Violetta, Alfredo and Germond low, but this shouldn’t be the first thing to come to mind: one should connect to the characters and feel for them. There was a disjoint between what Verdi was trying to say and what the clever producers here had in mind and that disjoint led to a loss of energy.

“You can’t get good help nowadays” was what I was thinking when Violetta was dying, not, I think, the reaction Verdi was going for, and she seemed to be dying in a laundromat too. How fun, I thought, for this production, since we’re having fun with it anyway, to have Marxist banter—in the Groucho sense—either in a cigar-smoking guy on the corner of the stage or in dueling surtitles saying “I’d fire that maid!… You can’t get good help anymore…” to mock the staging.

There wasn’t a single curtain call. Alan Opie’s Germond was a cut above perfect: his part was sung with extraordinary verve, wit and understanding. His timber was all light and air. James Valenti as Alfredo is a great young tenor and a pretty good actor despite the absurdity and limitations of the set designs. Inva Mula (Violetta), after making apologies for her battle with laryngitis after the first act, settled in and performed wonderfully: the apology seemed to relax her and she stopped overreaching. And not a single curtain call? I blame the director entirely for the lack of patron zeal. They’d be standing and screaming with joy if the stage directions didn’t fight every inch of the way with the music and singers.

Don’t misunderstand me, the production wasn’t garbage. If it were, it would have been carted off long ago. It’s worse than garbage—it’s the rotting corpse of post-modernism, born dead, feeding off itself and the arts of the past. Can’t we get a wooden stake for this beast and declare the birth of the post-post-modernist movement? Of course not, silly—post-modernism was designed to be sexless and sterile.