History of ‘La Traviata’ tells us audiences care as much about how operas look as how they sound


There are other examples — Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” comes quickly to mind — but few of the operas now considered basic to the standard repertory suffered a more disastrous premiere than the one scheduled to open Saturday night at the Four Seasons Centre.

Yes, on the evening of March 6, 1853, on the stage of La Fenice Theatre in Venice, Verdi’s “La Traviata” bombed.

The reason? There are several, not least among them the fact that the lead soprano playing the tubercular Violetta Valery appeared to be suffering not so much from consumption as from overconsumption.

Equally significant was the fact that the cast appeared in contemporary dress before an audience accustomed to seeing operas performed “in costume.” And sure enough, when “La Traviata” was revived a year later on the same stage, set in the period of Louis XIV, it triumphed.

Audiences, it appears, judge operas not only by how they sound but how they look. The fact that “La Traviata” was based on a contemporary tale, a classic prostitute with a heart of gold story by Alexandre Dumas fils, mattered less to the Venetians than the shock of seeing its characters dress as they would.

Times do, of course, change and it is commonplace now even to see 18th-century characters wearing 21st-century apparel.

When approached to collaborate on a new production of “La Traviata” for Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, designer Cait O’Connor chose a path somewhere in between, clothing the characters “in costume” (from a 21st-century point of view) but in clothes contemporary with the period of the story.

“The story is universally human,” O’Connor observed, “so I begin by listening to the music, without even paying attention to the words at first. And I always cry. Mr. Neef (Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company at the time of the production’s 2010 premiere) also pointed out that the story takes place in salons in people’s houses and the party dresses should look worn. We are after a natural look.”

Not that Neef has been averse to experiment. As artistic administrator Roberto Mauro recalled, “When we did ‘Aida’ Mr. Neef said he didn’t want pyramids and elephants.” So director Tim Albery took a flying leap, virtually turning the title character into a charwoman and effectively rendering incredible the scene in which the Egyptian princess Amneris pretends sisterhood to gain Aida’s confidence.

The problem with non-traditional productions, Mauro suggested, is that they don’t always work all the way through, another example being Christopher Alden’s production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” taken out of its Italian Renaissance context in a ducal court and transposed to a Victorian men’s club.

The American director Peter Sellars, whose production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” dramatically heightened the exposure of local audiences to video projections in opera, is famous for recontextualizing classic works, having set Mozart-Da Ponte operas in controversial settings: “Cosi fan tutte” in a diner, “The Marriage of Figaro” in New York’s Trump Tower and “Don Giovanni” in Spanish Harlem.

The inevitable question posed by such productions is why? What, if anything, has been gained? What, if anything, has been lost? Mauro likes to think back to something the operatically experienced conductor Sir Andrew Davis told him, which is that “the production has to tell the story.”

Visitors to the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany, may wonder if Sir Andrew’s assertion still holds in a house in which Nazi storm troopers and armies of rodents have been inserted into 19th-century tales based on medieval Norse mythology.

The argument is sometimes made that non-traditional approaches can shed new light on old works. It is surely also true that an old-fashioned literalist approach can be counterproductive, which is why Stephen Wadsworth avoided giggles in his Canadian Opera production by moving the story of Handel’s “Xerxes” forward in time to the composer’s 18th century rather than have the singers walk around trying to look like Ancient Persians — the added benefit of this decision being that the production and music, identical in period style, seemed to belong together.

Then there is the currently fashionable issue of cultural sensitivity. Several years ago, Vancouver Opera decided to reset Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” as a tale of British Columbia’s coastal Native peoples. But Native elders protested that having the High Priest vanquish the evil Queen of the Night would be untrue to their culture. So, in the final scene, the Queen wound up holding hands with Sarastro.


William Littler is a Toronto-based classical music writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.


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