Since its inception in 2015, the Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO), under the leadership of Artistic Director Sabatino Vacca, has been a welcome addition to the musical life of Burlington and beyond. This performance of La Traviata, staged in the acoustically friendly, 700-seat Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC), marked SOLO’s return to in-person, fully staged opera after the COVID crisis. SOLO has tackled this Verdi gem once before, in September 2016, in a semi-staged performance at the BPAC.
It just so happens that there’s a terrific, young Violetta in Canada right now: Karoline Podolak. The Toronto-born Polish Canadian has won several major singing competitions, among them First Prize and Audience Choice Price at the Canadian Opera Company‘s Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competiton last fall (and a graduate of Opéra de Montréal‘s prestigious Atelier Lyrique). I attended the event at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, and she was the clear winner with a voice that stood out amongst a strong field. Her calling card? “Sempre libera” in Act 1 of La Traviata.
Since then, Podolak won the prestigious 2023 George and Nora London Foundation Award, another feather in her cap. For those unfamiliar with her voice and artistry, go to her website with a ton of video clips.
Joining Podolak in the SOLO La Traviata were two excellent Canadians: tenor Ernesto Ramirez (Alfredo) and baritone James Westman (Germont). I was told the performance was sold out, a first for SOLO. The audience was treated to an evening of superb vocalism by the principals. The set was simple and rather bare bones, to be expected given it was a single performance given by a small, regional opera company. The SOLO Orchestra and Chorus did its yeoman duty with enthusiasm and commitment, but understandably, the focus was rightfully on the principal artists.
In the Act 1 party scene, Podolak appeared in the same dazzling floor length gold gown she wore in the COC Competition, making a strong impression with her physical beauty and charismatic stage presence. The moment she started singing, it was clear that this singer was the “real deal.” One is struck by the beauty and purity of her lyric soprano, its focused tone, accuracy of pitch, and easy top. In “Ah forse lui…Sempre libera,” there’s plenty of coloratura, not to mention the four high C’s, a D flat, and a E flat in alt. For Podolak, it was a cakewalk.
The soprano was also an affecting actress, evidenced in her scenes with Alfredo and Germont. In the final “Addio del passato,” I would have liked a bit more intensity of pathos, and more power of parlando in the reading of the letter, in her utterance of “E tardi!” before launching into the aria. True, this is Verdi and not Puccini, but La Traviata is as close as Verdi ever got to Italian verismo. While too veristic an approach and an abundant use of chest voice are to be avoided, a judicious sprinkling can make a huge dramatic effect.
Ernesto Ramirez (Alfredo) possesses a lyric tenor of beauty and warmth, even throughout its range, used with discerning taste and musicality. Too bad his Act 2 cabaletta with its high C was cut, as I am sure he would have been terrific. And it was a pleasure to hear once again veteran baritone James Westman in his signature role. Of the three principals, I know the Westman voice the best, having heard him on numerous occasions over 20+ years. He always combines a warm, ingratiating baritone with a sympathetic stage presence. Now with the passage of time, his Germont is more believable than ever, with all the gravitas one would want to go with his solid vocalism.
The supporting roles were all taken with enthusiasm and commitment. The chorus and orchestra acquitted themselves honourably, a few minor synching and instrument balance issues notwithstanding. All in all, it was a performance from the heart. This was my first exposure to SOLO and I look forward to hearing them in the future.