The snowy road to Pacific Opera Victoria’s La traviata

ON STAGE

What: Pacific Opera Victoria presents La traviata
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Feb. 14 through Feb. 24
Tickets: $27-$144, from the Royal McPherson box office, by phone at 250-386-6121, or online at www.rmts.bc.ca

It has been an eventful road to opening night for the team behind Pacific Opera Victoria’s production of La traviata.

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A dress rehearsal planned for Monday night at the Royal Theatre was cancelled due to snow, and the constant threat of inhospitable driving conditions prompted Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon, who lives near Sidney, to hunker down at the Chateau Victoria hotel — just steps from the stage door — for the weekend.

Cancelling a full dress rehearsal with orchestra is unusual, given the associated costs and hours spent in preparation, but the decision was out of the hands of Pacific Opera Victoria, Vernon said.

“I didn’t want to shut it down arbitrarily,” he said. “But this weather was something else.”

A dress rehearsal went off without a hitch on Tuesday, so La traviata, which is being staged through Feb. 24, is expected to be in top shape for opening night tonight.

According to Vernon, who will conduct the Victoria Symphony for each performance, Giuseppe Verdi was at his peak when La traviata premièred in 1853, and the cast of the Pacific Opera Victoria co-production, which is performed in Italian with English surtitles, know what is expected of them.

“Every time you have a new cast, it adds a complete dimension,” he said. “It’s about adjusting to what Verdi asked for.”

Vernon is very familiar with La traviata, a story built around the character of Violetta Valéry, a Parisienne courtesan who takes up with an unpredictable suitor, Alfredo Germont (theirs is a scandalous union, at first, played to full dramatic effect.)

Vernon has been associated with “hundreds” of La traviata productions over the years, after serving as the music director for several tours by the Canadian Opera Company during the late 1970s. “I did so many of them, they are on the hard drive forever,” Vernon said with a laugh. “The notes on the page don’t necessarily change, but how they live in the air does. Every singer has a particular pacing.”

Pacific Opera Victoria’s new co-production of La traviata differs from all the rest, however.

A joint venture of the Victoria company and Manitoba Opera, Edmonton Opera, Vancouver Opera and Opéra de Montreal, La traviata marks the first-ever collaboration involving five professional Canadian opera companies, one that is being spread over three seasons. The companies have their own casts, but share responsibilities such as wardrobe and sets.

Manitoba Opera and Edmonton Opera staged their productions in 2018. The Victoria version lands smack dab in the middle of the run, with Vancouver Opera’s production due later this year and Opéra de Montréal’s version set for 2020. “We mutually put some resources into the thing to give it some scope,” Vernon said.

Pacific Opera Victoria has seen several of its in-house productions mounted by other companies in the past, but a co-production such as this is immense. Vernon was energized by the idea, despite the heavy workload for all involved. He likes to keep things fresh. “Music shouldn’t be automatic. It should be alive and alert.”

The two Canadian leads (soprano Lucia Cesaroni and tenor Colin Ainsworth) are making their role debuts in La traviata, playing Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont for the first time in their careers, with direction from Alain Gauthier. Cesaroni, “a rising star” in the words of Vernon, has the tougher role to manage (“Violetta is like Mt. Everest for a soprano,” Vernon said. “It’s a huge thing to climb.”) but he’s excited for audiences to watch Ainsworth grow into his role.

“For somebody who is going to sing Verdi, it’s the beginning, because it’s a young tenor part that is not overwritten, with some dramatic moments. It’s not one-dimensional at all.”

Pacific Opera Victoria’s previous production of La traviata, in 2009, was set on Christmas Eve in 1950s Paris. This week’s production is set amid the roaring 1920s. No matter the era, La traviata never loses its appeal with modern audiences, Vernon said.

“Verdi wanted La traviata to be contemporary and set in the modern eras of the time. He wanted it to be of the now, so it always remains relevant.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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