TORONTO—What makes a work so popular that it endures at the top of the opera charts for over 160 years? According to soprano Joyce El-Khoury, it is the combination of superb music and insight into the human character, qualities that Giuseppe Verdi, one of opera’s most celebrated composers, married perfectly in “La Traviata.”
The young Canadian singer, renowned for her interpretation of Violetta, the opera’s heroine, is reprising the part for the Canadian Opera Company’s latest production, a role she shares with Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina.
“I think people to this day still value beauty, and honesty of emotion. We’re in a digital age of course, but people still fundamentally need beauty and to be moved and to be transported and I think that’s what ‘La Traviata’ does,” says El-Khoury in explaining the opera’s enduring popularity.
The opera is based on the mid-19th century novel and play “The Lady with the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils, which had been inspired by the author’s romance with a highly popular Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis. When it made its debut in 1853 at Venice’s La Fenice Theatre, it scandalized audiences with its depiction of contemporary decadence, particularly its daring to feature a courtesan, a fallen woman, in the lead role.
At its heart, however, “La Traviata” (literally meaning the one who has lost her way in Italian), is a sincere story of love and sacrifice set against a backdrop of societal prejudices.
“Verdi wrote a lot of grand operas and this opera is as verismo as Verdi gets because we’re not dealing with kings and queens, we’re dealing with real people in their home so it’s very intimate, and even though the emotions are huge … we get to feel like we can make a connection with these characters immediately,” says El-Khoury.
The soprano believes the character of Violetta is one of the most complex in opera, surprising audiences through her ability to sacrifice, forgive, and love, in this way overturning the expectations we may have of her as a woman who sells herself for money and possessions.
“When I take on a new role, I choose whether I want to do a role based on the character, the merits of the character, and whether or not this character teaches us lessons and makes us think about things, or explore sides of things that we never would have before,” says El-Khoury, who believes Violetta teaches us not to judge people.
“We do not know what people go through to make them who they are, so I think it gives perspective into the human condition … For me that’s what makes her really special. She’s so much more than anybody would expect.”
For El-Khoury, in addition to the drama, Verdi’s music is an important factor in the opera’s popularity.
“He knew how to colour the music to depict what the scene is doing. In the second act, when [Violetta] realizes she has to give Alfredo up, the lines are long and sweeping—it’s like pulling one thread out of your heart and just pulling on it. And he did that by asking for a fil di voce on a particular line—just stretching it out and making it really intimate,” she says.
In contrast, in the first act, with the “Drinking Song,” she says he is able to perfectly capture the Parisian scene characteristic of the time period. “You can hear the champagne in the music … it has this bubbly nature.”
The COC production is directed by Arin Arbus, and co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera.
“It’s beautiful,” El-Khoury says of the production. “Arin, our director, is looking to be very true to the period. I think it’s a very honest, loyal way to approach the opera.
“It’s beautiful visually, but also in terms of the society stakes, the social conflict, and the period we are in.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “La Traviata” runs until Nov. 6. Joyce El-Khoury makes her debut Oct. 16. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca