Last night the Four Seasons Centre saw its first post-pandemic performance with a live audience. It was a revival of Arin Arbus’ production of La traviata last seen at the Canadian Opera Company in 2015. It’s a good, rather than a great, production. Set in the mid-19th century Parisian demi-monde, as the creators intended, it respects what Verdi was trying to say about the hypocrisy of bourgeois morals without ever quite managing to shock a modern audience in the way it shocked contemporaries... but then very few Traviata productions do.

Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo) and Amina Edris (Violetta)
© Michael Cooper

If memory serves there were some tweaks in this revival (also directed by Arbus). The first act is a very wild party indeed, with big frocks and fancy dress elements, but this time it seemed drunker and even more joyless with chorus members staggering around and, on one occasion, someone falling off their chair. It definitely evoked a world of ultimately vacuous pleasures that one might reasonably want to escape from. Cleverly though, it also managed to create a kind of frame for a different, less frenzied, space in which Violetta and Alfredo could operate. The second party scene, with skeletal bulls, was even more sinister. In both scenes the use of giant shadows on the back of the stage increased the atmosphere of doom. All in all, an intriguing mix of grit and glamour. By way of contrast both Act 2 Scene 1 and Act 3 were staged extremely sparely with just a backdrop and a few pieces of furniture. The carnival in the final scene is sung off-stage with just a few shadows to evoke the action.

Canadian Opera Company Chorus in La traviata, Act 2 scene 2
© Michael Cooper

The real joy of the evening was some really outstanding singing. Matthew Polenzani’s Alfredo is very much a known quantity and he was in fine voice with high notes ringing out in the proper style. The revelation of the night though was young Egyptian-New Zealand soprano Amina Edris making her company debut and singing only her second Violetta. Beautiful of tone throughout her registers, with accurate coloratura and no shortage of power, she made just about an ideal Violetta from a vocal standpoint. With slightly more nuanced acting she could be an absolute star. A first class trio of principals was completed by Simone Piazzola singing, I believe, his 200th Germont père. He has a powerful, dark but pleasing baritone that blended well with the others. He’s also quite a dominating stage presence.

Amina Edris (Violetta) and Simone Piazzola (Germont)
© Michael Cooper

The supporting roles were mostly played by past or present members of the COC Ensemble Studio. I particularly enjoyed the insouciant Flora of Jamie Groote, Midori Marsh’s sensitive Annina and Vartan Gabrielian’s sepulchral Dr Grenvil, but there were no weak links in an excellent ensemble cast. The COC’s fine chorus was kept busy and created great energy. Conductor Johannes Debus managed the balance of the ensembles nicely and, as ever, got splendid playing from the COC orchestra.

So, a Traviata that is honest and not at all Disneyfied while doing nothing to offend the traditionalists. With some superb music-making, it made a fitting vehicle for the COC’s return.