Taiwan has a history of opera productions that range from the superb to the atrocious. Generally speaking, the greater the local component, the better they are. The sheer expense of bringing in an entire foreign company, especially if accompanied by its own orchestra, means that only those with very low operating costs can make it. And low operating costs means a small chorus and the most basic of sets.
Ekaterinburg is a Russian city 1,667km east of Moscow, and its opera company, The Russian State Opera of Ekaterinburg, is coming to the National Theater with Verdi’s La Traviata for six performances from Dec. 21 to Dec. 25 (there are two shows on Dec. 24). So what can we expect?
First, the positive indications. These are that the orchestra will be Taiwan’s excellent Evergreen Symphony Orchestra (長榮交響樂團, ESO), and that the soloists singing Violetta and Alfredo, the two doomed lovers, in certain performances appear at least promising. These are Irina Bozhenko and Ilgam Valiev. It has proven impossible to find out which dates Bozhenko and Valiev will be performing, or anything about the other soloists singing these roles (itself perhaps significant). It seems probable, however, that Bozhenko and Valiev will play the opening night and the evening of Dec. 24 at least.
The negative indications are that this production has been touring the world since 2007, to such places as Thailand and Portugal, and that the one clip of it on YouTube isn’t encouraging, either as regards the soloist featured or the sets or the size of the chorus.
Tickets in Taipei are expensive, too, ranging from NT$1,200 to NT$5,800. So it would appear that the promoters are relying on a Christmas audience for this most popular of operas.
What: La Traviata
When: Dec. 21 through Dec. 25 at 7:30pm with a 2:30pm matinee performance on Dec. 24
Where: 21-1 Zhongshan S Rd, Taipei City (台北市中山南路21-1號)
Admission: Tickets cost from NT$1,200 to NT$5,800, available from the NTCH box office, Kham Ticket, tel: (07) 780-9900, www.kham.com.tw, and at 7-Eleven ibon kiosks
On the Net: www.ntch.edu.tw and www.evergreensymphony.org
La Traviata, based on Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, was, in Verdi’s view at one stage of his career, his finest creation. It’s enormously powerful when given a truly dramatic rendering, and this means soloists who are strong both as actors and vocally, plus a production that supports or even enhances the undeniable strengths of the music. This is an opera in which there isn’t a dull moment — it’s tuneful, tear-jerking, but also profoundly moving in the most serious possible way.
If you want to see and hear how effective La Traviata can be, you have only to look on YouTube at the clips from the performance at La Fenice, Venice in 2004, starring the celebrated Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont (Alfredo’s father) — not a role that usually attracts the most attention — plus Patrizia Ciofi and Roberto Sacca. The one to opt for is labeled “La Traviata Final Scene” uploaded by Kynnusk. It’s really magnificent, with an orchestra like hard-honed iron, a darkly brooding production, and totally committed soloists. Turn then to the clip of the Ekaterinburg production and make up your own mind.
It’s unfair, of course, to compare famous European artists on their home turf with tourists from beyond the Urals struggling to bring a production to the furthest East. My advice, therefore, would be to buy the cheapest ticket available for one of the early performances, and if it’s any good at all go again whenever possible. The music certainly deserves it. But if you’re going to take a chance like this, I’d strongly advise you to go when Bozhenko and Valiev are singing.
One final word: The opera production to really look out for is the National Symphony Orchestra’s Madam Butterfly, a coproduction with Opera Australia and scheduled for July 25 to 30 July next year in the National Theater in Taipei. If the 2009 Carmen by the same joint team is anything to go by, this should be phenomenal.