Giuseppe Verdi never intended for his iconic “La traviata” to be defined by one particular era.
Nearly a century-and-a-half later, Opera Philadelphia is fulfilling his dream.
The company, which adapts operas for a 21st-century audience, is setting the timeless story during the 1950s and early ’60s while preserving the premise, plot and lyrics. Originally performed last year in Bucharest, Romania, world-renowned operatic director Paul Curran is bringing the production to Philadelphia for its United States’ premiere.
Although a vintage landscape is painted with Dior dresses and rotary telephones, the original thematic and musical essence still resonates on the Academy of Music’s stage.
“We’re modernizing it, but we’re not destroying something about the opera. In fact, we’re maintaining it,” said tenor Alek Shrader, who is playing the leading role of Alfredo.
Curran was captivated by the familiarity of “La traviata”’s era and how the conservatism of the 1950s aligns with themes of the opera, like virtuous standards for women.
Extending beyond the 1950s, gender inequality is a consistent historical issue, allowing the opera to be relevant to present-day audience members.
“There are so many topics that are totally relevant today and they’re in this opera that was composed over 200 years ago,” Shrader said.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa, who is playing the role of Violetta, said objectification of women has never fully diminished. Violetta’s sexual practice impedes her romantic relationship with Alfredo, which is the central conflict of the opera.
“Sexual deviance is still an issue in modern society,” Oropesa said. “We still have our own inequality issues and are expected to lead a certain life.”
While the opera’s feminist elements remain unchanged, other essentials are mended to fit the post-World War II era. In the traditional masquerade scene, cast members wear colorful sunglasses to maintain anonymity, rather than the Colombina masks worn in the original opera.
Similar to the opera’s subject matter, character development continues undeterred during the 18th to 20th century conversion.
“[Paul Curran’s] modernization works, because he makes sure that the story stays in tact … that the characters stay in tact,” Shrader said.
Another essential component of “La traviata” is the casting of younger operatic artists, which appropriately suits the envisioned ages of the characters. Oropesa said her youthfulness and relative lack of life experience allows her to relate to Violetta with an authentic approach.
For audience members, seeing a real young woman dying on stage intensifies the performance.
“With [Alek and I] being younger, I think people will we see a very real picture when they come to the production,” Oropesa said.
Although the revamped era creates a new experience for audience members, the contemporary setting is not the opera’s sole attraction.
“The modernization can be a negotiation to attract new people, but I don’t think you can rely on simply modernizing the piece,” Shrader said. “In a way, it’s an attempt to reach more people, but I don’t think that’s the reason. The opera in and of itself is the reason. … The modernization is almost like a lens.”
Grace Maiorano can be reached at email@example.com.
Video shot by Linh Ha Khanh Than and edited by Sean Brown.