In Israeli Opera's La Traviata, It's Not Over 'Til the Topless Lady Sings

A new Israeli Opera production brings the theme of an objectified woman to stage in startling realism. Whether the audience will get the message is debatable

Imagine a woman in 19th-century France. Without intellectual property rights, without the possibility of opening her own bank account, without a matriculation certificate and with no chance of a college education since the universities were closed to her by law, how could she manage on her own? How could she live without a husband, brother or father?

The paths to survival were clear and limited: Work as a slave in a factory or in cleaning, and suffer from poverty, disease and violence - and from a life expectancy of 40 years at best; or enter the cycle of prostitution and provide sexual services. This was the trap facing Violetta Valery, the heroine of Giuseppe Verdi's opera La Traviata.

Similar to today, in Victorian Europe there was a broad range for the continuum of the world's oldest profession: From the street to the finest salons. As a Courtesan, escort, kept woman or demi-monde. These are just a few of the terms applied to women who, for as long as they were young, were kept by men from high society in return for their bodies. And as we see at the beginning of the opera, expensive gifts were heaped upon such women and lavish sums were spent on them.

The first scene is of a party: wine, women and music like in a Viennese operetta, and unrestrained pleasure. Libiamo, "Drink from the joyful cup," sings the tenor in the famous drinking song "Libiamo ne' lieti calici," and everyone raises their goblets, applauding the drunkenness of the senses.

But an unwelcomed overtone slips into this drinking song. The tenor, Alfredo Germont, raises his cup mostly to the life of love, the love that drills straight into the heart and sweetens the kisses. The courtesan Violetta is shocked by this, and in the drinking song that turns into a duet she answers him: Anything that isn't a pleasure in this life is stupid; let us enjoy life since love ends, wilts overnight like a flower. And from this moment the opera transforms from a moralistic and sentimental love story into a true tragedy.

Verdi identifies the only psychological way women working in prostitution can survive: Dissociation. Violetta must detach herself from her feelings; responding to love is impossible for her; love is a principle in opposition to her entire life, her mental state, her ability for physical survival.

But in her magnificent recitativo and aria Violetta grows stronger and frees herself. This song carries a cry that pierces the heart, and has one of the greatest melodies ever written. It is a song of fleeting thoughts, memories and fear, of a woman rebelling against her dream and in the end coming to a courageous decision: abandoning the past for a new life. It is the song of a person who is independent, autonomous, humane, of a woman who will no longer be degraded or deny herself, who is no longer controlled by men.

The music sketches out this process and leads it, with the dizzying heights of coloratura and also with whispers; with the elegant orchestral accompaniment that forms, beneath the stage, an entire world of emotions.

That is why La Traviata is a feminist opera. True, the heroine succeeds in fulfilling her freedom just for a moment, just for a few months. True, society defeats her. In a duet with another man, her lover's father Giorgio Germany, she accepts the verdict. She gives up her love, and in doing so also her life, for the good of her lover and his family. But at the moment of decision, in which she answers her own internal call, these can no longer be stolen from her.

The Israeli Opera is now presenting an excellent production of La Traviata. After a light warming up in the earliest performances, the soloists, and foremost Lana Kos in the starring role, have claimed their spot in a long line of excellent La Traviatas here at the Israeli Opera.

Nevertheless, it is hard for directors today to resist the temptation. Many directors, like the current Andrejs Zagars, take advantage of the party in the second act not only to hint at the nihilism and moral corruption of Parisian high society, but transform it, to the delight of the audience and the men in it in particular, into a real orgy. And in doing so, in this production, three dancers wrapped in black fur are carried aloft and then strip on stage. They remain topless for many long minutes.

It's a real pleasure to enjoy the best of both worlds! Instead of sneaking off to a cheap peep show, you can dress up and listen a fine opera beside your wife while drooling over topless dancers on stage.

This is how the director draws a connection between the emptiness of the Parisian salon and the bourgeoisie audience in the hall. He unites the two rather than open the chasm between them. He lures the audience into the very same world where Violetta struggles, simply placing a mirror in front of the plum, pleasured face that spends hundreds of shekels for a ticket to La Traviata.

The question always arises in such cases: How to choose the dancers? Does someone examine their, er, assets, before casting? Or do they come thanks to a recommendation?

It's been said that decades ago, a certain Israeli opera singer was passed over for a major role in a Wagner production because her body was not deemed up-to-par for a requisite nude scene. In La Traviata, a creation that is completely a call against the objectification of the female body, such a moment is outrageous.

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