Adrian Chamberlain's Stage Left: Reviews of La traviata, Trojan Women

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Need a bracing tonic to counteract Victoria’s recent snow dump? Pacific Opera Victoria’s La traviata might be just the prescription.

Verdi’s most popular opera has been reinvented as an opulent 1920s romp. In this production, revellers glug Champagne from the bottle, girls in Vegas-style headdresses and hotpants saunter saucily and everyone dances with decadent glee.

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Meanwhile, Violetta (soprano Lucia Cesaroni), a party-hearty consumptive in a glittering, silvery draped dress, might well be an escapee from one of Jay Gatsby’s soirées.

One star of the show is the stupendous stairway bisecting the stage area diagonally. The work of set and costume designer Christina Poddubiuk, it’s lavishly over-the-top — a testament to Violetta’s lifestyle as a wealthy courtesan with a heart of gold. Ditto for the mansion’s banks of shuttered windows, which look wonderful when lit up.

This roaring twenties approach to La traviata, originally set in the 1700s, is tremendously successful. The crowd scenes — directed by Alain Gauthier and choreographed by Jacques Lemay — are especially ebullient, a welcome thing given some of the singers’ limited acting skills.

The opera’s sumptuous look is the result of an experiment. For this production, Pacific Opera Victoria partnered creatively and financially with opera companies in Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

Cesaroni, who played Mimi in POV’s recent La bohème, makes her debut in the role of Violetta. Once again, she impressed.

On Thursday night at the Royal Theatre, she displayed strong acting ability and a lush, creamy voice capable of navigating Sempre Libera’s giddy coloratura as well as the lovely legato lines in Act IV’s Addio del passato.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth plays Violetta’s love interest, Alfredo, for the first time. A handsome singer with a bright voice, he’s well cast in the looks department, although on this evening, the hoped-for chemistry between Alfredo and Violetta wasn’t always apparent.

In many ways, Alfredo’s father Georgio is the narrative centre of the opera, since he’s the man demanding Violetta give up his son in the name of social propriety (the tug-of-war between private and public life is a favourite Verdi theme).

James Westman, the fine baritone who plays Georgio, sang with clarity and authority; however, his acting seemed stiff in places.

Timothy Vernon, who has conducted this melodically rich opera many times, coaxed a fine performance from the Victoria Symphony.

The orchestra captured the rollicking tempos of the party scenes without rushing them, as well as the fine nuances of poignant passages.

This is an entertaining, visually splendid production chockablock with familiar tunes.

La traviata continues at the Royal Theatre Feb. 16, 20, 22 and 24.

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Hecuba (Sarah Hunsberger), the Queen of Troy, prepares to hear her fate as delivered by the Greek army's herald Talthybius (Ted Angelo Ngkaion). Euripides' classic Greek anti-war play, Trojan Women, runs at the Phoenix Theatre at UVic until Feb. 23. - Dean Kalyan

When it comes to tragedy, Euripides’ Trojan Women is, well … especially tragic.

The classic Greek play, now being staged by the University of Victoria’s theatre department, is just one horrendous catastrophe after another. The Trojan women are poised to be shipped off as slaves.

One of them, Hecuba, learns that her daughter has been killed. Then Andromache finds out her baby is to be killed. The tot is promptly tossed off the battlements of Troy — only to be delivered back to Hecuba and company for burial.

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of wailing and chest-beating going on. Near the end, as Troy burns, Hecuba declares: “My body sinks to the ground and I beat the earth with both hands.”

It’s tough to blame her. Still, if you’re seeking a breezy night of theatre, Trojan Women (which makes Long Day’s Journey into Night seem like a comedy by comparison) is likely not for you.

The play, directed by faculty member Jan Wood, is an unusually difficult one in many respects. It’s not just the subject matter. There are reams of treacherously long monologues to be learned.

Sarah Hunsberger, playing Hecuba, does especially well with this. On Wednesday night, she showed particular promise during a passionate tirade in which Hecuba denounces the treachery of Helen, played by Georgia Duff as a seductive siren in a blood-red dress.

Also notable was Ciaran Volke, who, as Menelaus, did a clever job of bringing out his character’s feelings of anger and betrayal mixed with lingering lust.

Wood and her team have updated Trojan Women, pulling it ahead a few thousand years to a modern-day war zone. Matthew Wilkerson has designed a fine set on a thrust stage.

It’s dominated by a ruined two-storey building with bombed-our concrete walls, torn plastic tarps and a defective light that flickers ominously. Occasionally, we hear a jet fighter tearing through the sky.

With great earnestness, Euripides explores such themes as duty and integrity in the face of the aftermath of war. For modern audiences used to having their tragedy leavened by irony and humour, it’s challenging stuff.

Although the notion of setting Trojan Women in present day is a good one (Wood notes the problem of displaced war victims is as relevant as ever), this production lumbers.

Take, for example, the chorus of barefooted women dancing and chanting in unison. This is intended to have a tribal, ritualistic feel — yet somehow, the effect is self-conscious and ungainly.

There’s awkwardness, too, in Cassandra’s habit of falling backward in a trance to recite prophesies — something that recalls risible moments in the original Star Trek TV series.

Trojan Women continues at the Phoenix Theatre until Feb. 23.

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