Verdi’s La traviata – presented by Cape Town Opera (CTO) and Opera UCT

When and where: Artscape Theatre, October 26, 27  at 19h00, October 28 at 18h00 and October 29 at 15h00
Tickets: R180-R520 through Computicket
Director: Marí Borstlap 
Cast: Two casts – see Computicket for lists
Orchestra: The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor: Jeremy Silver
Chorus: Combined CTO and Opera UCT- directed by Marvin Kernelle
Dance ensemble: The Waterfront Theatre School, choreography by Kirsten Isenberg

Verdi’s La traviata, presented by Cape Town Opera and Opera UCT at Artscape is a mesmerising production- visually – breathtakingly beautiful and at times freaky and surreal. Thematically, the opera poses uncomfortable questions around women, under the yoke of a predominately patriarchal society. Money and sex has enabled the heroine, Violetta to achieve status as a “courtesan”, as they tagged her in Verdi’s day. The title, La traviata may be translated as “fallen woman”. The opera was first staged in 1853 in Venice and in those days, Violetta was considered as fallen because of the transactional nature of her business –being paid for sex in her salon of pleasure.  Here we are in 2023 and on the surface that may seem as an obsolete and anachronistic narrative arc: Who even says “fallen woman” these days? Sadly in 2023, many women are very much fodder for men in power and men who hold onto their positions in society and will do anything to hoist themselves up and guard their privilege and public reputations.

Marí Borstlap is in the director’s and designer’s seat and she has conceptualised a La traviata  which loops around itself – back to the grandeur and pomp of 16th century Europe, arching itself very much into the 21st century – reverberating against the Me Too movement, the eroding of women of choices over their bodies (think the reversals of abortion rights – Roe vs Wade in the USA) and the fact that many women are still at the mercy of men who use them and discard them as they pursue power, money and reputation.

Borstlap’s stunning production design is heightened, charged and framed by visual metaphors and references. For example, vaginal flowers, riffing off Georgia O’Keefe, are restrained in a glass house – a menagerie – in which Violetta is confined and “tamed”.  The costumes are spectacular – women in cage-like dresses in carnival time in Paris- corseted and controlled. In addition to theatre, Borstlap has worked extensively in film and there are intense filmic elements in this production as we see Violetta flashing back on her life – and memories – with extreme sadness at the futility of it all.

There are two casts for this season I was there on opening night, October 26, with Brittany Smith as Violetta. She is a tour de force as the “fallen woman” who has attained status and a position in society, with her salon of adoring peeps. She gives it up for love and a life in the country; in this production, a Georgia O’Keefe glass house.  She goes from being kitted out in a bling pink power pant suit in her salon in the city (Paris) to the country. The somewhat androgynous pantsuit, pinged for me in terms of a cabaret in Weimar Germany – where as it goes in Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret – the musical– one could forget ones trouble’s outside and become one’s best version, at the cabaret. The bobbed hairstyle of Violetta, in this production, is for me, reminiscent of Sally Bowles/Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, the film (1972).  

Violetta gives up her salon and dons a country frock – the antithesis of her power dress code as a the object of desire in Paris. At the behest of her lover’s father, she relinquishes her hold on his son, to save the reputation of the family and the threat of a scandal. She is spurred on by the misguided notion of redemption through her suffering- physically and emotionally. In the end, there is no happy ending and she faces the tragedy and the realisation that it was all an illusion. Sure, the men apologise but it is too late to apologise. The notion that the lovers will meet again in another sphere, is a fantasy in the face of the hard and stark reality, in this production. Love – ahh- the pursuit is wonderful – but in this production – love has been crushed and snuffed out.

The sumptuous and plush layering of the first two acts, has its powerful denouement in act 3 as we see a stripped back set, with lanterns lowered and pulled up, as the light of life retreats from Violetta. The Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winning soprano, Smith has established herself not only for her vocal range but also as an extraordinary actress. In La traviata, she evokes the gravitas of a Violetta who is shattered by the outcome of her life. In addition to the sung libretto, there is text which is spoken (Italian- isiXhosa surtitles). I was on the edge of my seat, in Act 3, as Smith uttered each word of her heartbreaking demise from the garden of earthly delights of Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers. The act is shrouded in grief, in the clinical setting; the confines of the last breaths of Violetta.

The entire company and chorus – is magnificent. The dance ensemble (Waterfront Theatre School, choreography by Kirsten Isenberg) infuses a madness to the carnival of the grotesque and nightmare of Violetta’s life (the opera references carnival time in Paris). The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jeremy Silver, makes magic with Verdi’s stirring score. There was an extended standing ovation on the opening night. The season sold out – two weeks before it opened. Let us hope that this intense, gripping operatically and theatrically innovative production, will be staged again. I rave but I do feel that it is a tad long. I think could benefit with some trimming.

Love and grief: Brittany Smith in La traviata, directed and designed by Marí Borstlap, a collaboration between Cape Town Opera and Opera UCT, with dancers from The Waterfront Theatre School. There are two casts for this production. Pic by Danie Coetzee. Supplied.
Madness and mayhem: La traviata, directed and designed by Marí Borstlap, a collaboration between Cape Town Opera and Opera UCT, with dancers from The Waterfront Theatre School. Pic by Danie Coetzee. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: La traviata, directed and designed by Marí Borstlap, a collaboration between Cape Town Opera and Opera UCT, with dancers from The Waterfront Theatre School. Pic by Danie Coetzee. Supplied.