Israeli Opera dusts off Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’

A crowd favorite, La Traviata was the first opera shown here a century ago, when productions were held at Eden Cinema, and the fourth after the grand 1985 opening of the Israeli Opera.

 ANUSH HOVHANNISYAN plays ‘Violetta.’  (photo credit: ROBERT KOLOYAN)
ANUSH HOVHANNISYAN plays ‘Violetta.’
(photo credit: ROBERT KOLOYAN)

Opera aficionados raised their glasses across the country this summer in anticipation of the the Israeli Opera’s up-and-coming production of La Traviata.

Verdi’s adaptation to Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1896 novel La Dame aux Camélias depicts a lost woman. Violetta (Anush Hovhannisyan) is a courtesan, an attractive vivacious woman who keeps admirers and holds banquets. Young Alfredo Germont (Leonardo Capalbo) is smitten.

He begs her to walk away from this allegedly empty existence and from Barone Douphol (Noah Briger) to live with him.

Amazingly, she accepts. Her happiness ends when Père Germont (Sebastian Catana) explains she is destroying his son’s future. In so doing, the entire house of Germont is put in peril. The clash between social norms and personal happiness is enmeshed with profound issues we still face today.

Among them, the power of money and the social roles men often impose on women. Which of the loves the opera explores will win? Which love has a right to?

A crowd favorite, La Traviata was the first opera shown here a century ago, when productions were held at Eden Cinema, and the fourth after the grand 1985 opening of the Israeli Opera under Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat.

Director Alessandro Talevi, who placed it during the Belle Époque for the 2014 Opera North production, now invites us to go even deeper – to peek behind the glamorous coating.

Violetta is financially supported “by men who want to own this prize,” Talevi said. “Look at [opera star] Maria Callas,” he offered, “and her husband [shipping magnate Aristotle] Onassis. He once told her: ‘You have a whistle in your throat. That is all you are.’” The urge to own or control the beauty, the talent, is not always joined with genuine love of the person possessing these traits.

In Leeds, Talevi had Alfredo slam wads of cash at Violetta’s face in an angry rejection of her loving support of their joint life. In this production, Israeli fashion firm Factory 54 partnered with the opera to offer an even more dangerous vision.

Fashion designer Anja Vang Kragh reimagined Violetta’s high society events as “human peacocks dancing their own danse macabre” offering a vision of women dancers clad in diamonds. This offers us a reflection of the cutting truths hidden within our fleeting human joys.

Factory 54

Factory 54 is walking in the footsteps of the 2013 Paris Opera production of Ravel’s Bolero, which had costumes designed by Givenchy (Riccardo Tisci) and the 2016 Rome Opera production of La Traviata with costumes created by Maison Valentino (Maria Grazia Chiuri, Pierpaolo Piccioli).

Opera writer Yitzhak Shamoa suggested Verdi’s Paris is not the actual city but “a capital of the world, a dream universe shared by all of humanity.”

Who has listened to “Sempre libera” (Always Free), the aria Violetta sings when she first rejects Alfredo, and not longed to also live life going from pleasure to pleasure, “vo´che scorra il viver mio/ pei sentieri del piacer” (Flowing along the surface/ of life’s path as I please)?

IN A stunning Royal Opera production, Renée Fleming holds a goblet and slaps the rear of a Cupid statue to drive the point across – no foolish romance for her. In Talevi’s vision “we make it more sensual, it is her enjoyment of her own body,” not love of champagne, which makes her dilemma so great.

“She is a transgressor,” Talevi offered, “we need people like that. She responds to the voyeurism around her but also holds an inner being others do not know. Alfredo does see it, which changes her life.”

This production was meant to open much earlier, soprano Anush Hovhannisyan explained, “but 15 production members got COVID-19,” she did too.

“I couldn’t sing at all,” she shared, “couldn’t make a noise to save my life.”

Having played the role at the Welsh Opera under revival director Sarah Crisp, Hovhannisyan thinks it is a great compliment for both Dumas fils, and Verdi, that La Traviata is so universally lauded today.

A glance will reveal it was produced eight times during the first 20 years of the New Opera, more than any other show. Talevi himself will travel to Leeds to oversee a revival of the 2014 production, then to Bologna, where an entirely new production will be staged.

“The human being rarely changes,” Hovhannisyan offered, “so the story of sacrifice for love can be set in Paris or the Congo, it is universal. La Traviata would have worked even on Mars.”

“People make theater as a lab for society,” she suggested, “one comes to the theater to see what if.”

Born in South Africa, Talevi collects art made by two important Jewish artists who were highly important to the Rainbow Nation. They are Lippy Lipshitz and Wolf Kibel.

Kibel, who nearly perished of malaria and was so broke he slept on the Tel Aviv beach during the 1920’s, and rejected the dictations of the Bezalel school to follow his own artistic values.

“One of the things I like about working with the Opera in Tel Aviv is that it still has some of the utopian idealism which made this city,” Talevi shared. Lauding the support and artistic freedom the opera grants artists.

“One of the things I like about working with the Opera in Tel Aviv is that it still has some of the utopian idealism which made this city.”

Alessandro Talevi

Hovhannisyan, whose relatives lived here in the 1990’s, described how she was brought up in a musical family by a cellist father (Hovhannes Hovhannisyan) and a radio producer mother (Ophelya Asatryan), and enjoyed the generous support of the great composer Edvard Mirzoyan. It was Mirozyan who helped her move to Scotland to continue her musical education.

“Half of my heart,” Hovhannisyan added, “is always here in Tel Aviv.”

La Traviata by Verdi will premiere at the Israeli Opera on Friday, July 22, at 1 p.m. with the last performance slotted for Wednesday, August 10, at 6 p.m. Sung in Italian with Hebrew and English surtitles. For tickets, visit: