A confluence of the old and the new often generates memorable events, and the latest staging of La traviata at Artscape promises to be a case in point. BEVERLEY BROMMERT speaks to Marí Borstlap (pictured left), director and designer of La traviata:
This perennial favourite of opera repertoire receives a fresh and original perspective from the direction of Marí Borstlap, a dynamic young theatre maker whose work has attracted critical acclaim. In addition, seasoned artists from Cape Town Opera, like soprano Brittany Smith and tenor Lukhanyo Moyake, will alternate with new young talent from Opera UCT namely Ondelwa Martins and Sakhumzi Martins, in the lead roles of Violetta and Alfredo.
With just over three weeks of rehearsals to go before opening night, Borstlap explains her reimagining of Verdi’s time-honoured classic: “In order to reach the heart of this opera’s meaning, constant stripping away of external trappings like costumes and props is needed. Then one can see beyond all that to the work’s inner world and grasp the truth it holds. Once its compass has been found, truthful presentation is possible – and the key to that lies in the female lead Violetta, who is the vis dramatica of the piece.”
Since early June this year, when CTO’s Artistic Director Magdalene Minnaar invited her to undertake the staging of this production, Borstlap has devoted much time and research to arriving at a transcendental reading of the work through its eponymous character. “Going ever deeper through research, I engaged in conversations with those previously entrusted with interpreting La traviata: two centuries’ worth of successive versions…” she explains.
This careful groundwork has borne fruit, informing the current director’s preference for a stylised approach: her staging of La traviata is set in the liminal space of a time-defying Daliesque surreality. Borstlap confirms that she has a considerable affinity with Dali’s vision, adding that stylisation has become a hallmark of her work to date, “…my signature, as it were”.
This Violetta is already deceased, beyond the world as we know it and existing in the afterlife; she recalls the opera’s familiar episodes in a series of flashbacks as she revisits the last tumultuous period of her short life.
Visual and visceral
Both visual and visceral, this innovative take on La traviata invites its audience to surrender to total immersion in beautiful music, beautiful singing and above all, the beautiful truth of a doomed love story.
In this ambitious endeavour, Borstlap’s previous experience in directing both theatre and opera has stood her in good stead. (She directed Dido and Aeneas in 2016, as well as writing a libretto). “Theatre and opera coexist, but they are very different,” she comments. “Directing theatre is a collaborative process, a journey to undertake with the cast. Opera on the other hand requires clarity of vision from its director, the strong sense of a multi-layered production to organise…there is no room for workshopping, although keeping an open mind, remaining flexible when conveying the characters and the message as well as telling the story, are all essential. It’s not just about music.” That said, she does not for a moment minimise the importance of music: “Music is a language in itself, integral to opera, and it must be loved and understood.”
She herself has loved music and opera since, as a young child, she would listen to the likes of Puccini and Bellini in the dark after being put to bed by her babysitting grandfather, and at school she chose singing as a subject up to Matric, and her mother played the piano. She sees this current production of La traviata as an opportunity to also recruit new audiences, enticing them to assimilate the seductive idiom of opera as, under her guidance, they penetrate the giant window of the subconscious.
What: La traviata
Where and when: Artscape from 26 to 29 October 2023
Photographs: Marguerite Oelofse