“La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi
Metropolitan Opera, New York, Saturday, January 22, 2011, 8PM
I have been racking my brain for a nice way to respond verbally to what I saw at the opera. Then I looked up “rack” to make sure I was spelling it correctly. (Don’t ask). I found the following in the definition: to stretch or strain violently. Apparently, Willy Decker stretched quite a bit, but didn’t strain much, in a stripped-down production by the “anti-Zeffirelli.” This version was previously done at the trendy Salzburg Festival.
The bare white stage is bounded by a large arc wall at the back that has a “ledge” running along it a couple feet off the ground. Entrances and exits are made starkly left or right through “disappearing” doorways, and furniture is confined to five “IKEA”-like sofas that are covered with floral slipcovers for the “country house” act.
Against all this white, Violetta Valéry stands out in her red dress. The “men” of the chorus (some of whom are women) all appear in formal black tie dress.
After reading the director’s own notes, generously provided in the program book, I was left feeling cheated of genuine insight into the work, as I was by this production. His justification, I feel, is superficial and pretentious, the sort of thing a graduate-level teacher either would spout to her class, or red-pencil and send back to the student with a grade of C- and a “Think deeper” notation. Do we really need to be visually clobbered with a giant clock onstage that represents the inexorable passing of time? It’s the only other “prop” aside from those sofas.
Readers may want to consult my earlier blog post on the literary background and issues of this work. “Woman’s Virtue Falls, Can’t Get Up” or “Sempre liberal!” (May 8, 2010)
That being said, the standouts in this musically satisfying rendition were the men, the conductor, and the Met orchestra as always. American tenor Matthew Polenzani sang Alfredo with youthful ardor, warm lyricism, and a beautiful tone and idiomatic diction throughout. I think it was as close to a “pre”Wagnerian 19th century sound as one is likely to hear from a “modern” tenor: something from the days before one had to over-project to be heard above the orchestra.
Also superb was the Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber in the key role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s moralizing father. His voice was strong and true, with a real change from the “heartless” character he threatens to be when requesting that Violetta sacrifice her love for the family’s reputation to a genuine respect for Violetta when he sees with what dignity she carries herself.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda led a beautifully paced, fluid, and tonally warm account, with the orchestra providing its customary beauty. Verdi’s famous “oom-pahs,” for which he took such ribbing from Wagner, never sounded so refined.
Unfortunately, a “Traviata” without a great Violetta is something less than ideal. The much-heralded glamour girl, Russian soprano Marina Poplovskaya certainly looked the part: svelte, with long blond hair. She moved well, and acted the part visually. But the voice was the “wrong” voice for the role. So many sopranos have come to grief on this part, because it demands a sort of “split vocal personality” extending from the fireworks of Act I’s defiant song of pleasure and abandon “Sempre libera!” to the final deathbed’s “Addio del passato.”
Poplovskaya did improve toward that very final scene, so perhaps she is a “last-act” Violetta, but her pitch and accuracy in the first act were approximate at times, the agility labored, and there was a certain “hollow” unsupported quality to the sound. She also broke up the arching “Amami Alfredo!” outburst in Act II, which many feel is the emotional climax of the character, by unusual phrasing. And what language was she singing in? It sure didn’t sound like Italian. Yes, yes, I realize it was. What I’m saying is, her vowel modification was extreme, and the consonants sacrificed for tone production.
Wieland Wagner’s abstract “colored slab” productions of the Wagner operas in the 1950s at the Wagner “temple” of Bayreuth worked, largely because the philosophical and musical content allows for more rumination. But Dumas/Verdi’s realistic mid-19th century morality fable needs at least some period trappings. From the audience perspective, it becomes a long time to sit and look at that white wall, a few sofas, and a clock. If I was one of the four donors of this new production (two couples), I’d seriously want to know how the money was spent.
I miss Zeffirelli, with all his opinions, “diva” behavior, and obsessive attention to detail.
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs