Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Director: Willy Decker
Violetta Valéry: Marina Poplavskaya
Alfredo Germont: Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont: Andrzej Dobber
After making it to past mid-January without a single live performance, things have suddenly changed and with quite a bang thanks to Willy Decker’s much talked about modern take on Verdi’s classic La Traviata at the Met last Wednesday night. What had been the hottest ticket in town in Salzburg in 2005, mostly for featuring opera’s golden couple at the time, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, has become the hot ticket in New York this season, albeit with less well-known-but-getting-there Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani. Truth be told, I had much admired Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo earlier this year, but I was not sure how she would tackle the drastically different and particularly demanding role of Violetta.
After deciding to take a peek at the Salzburg production on YouTube to get an idea of what the fuss was all about, I naturally got sucked right into it and ended up watching the whole thing online. It is understood that a video (also available on DVD) on a small screen cannot do justice to any live performance, but I was still grateful for a first taste of what was coming to us. While I quickly realized than expecting the same kind of sizzling chemistry between the leads would be wishful thinking, I found the production intriguing enough and looked forward to seeing the real thing at the Met. After all, if all else failed, I could always close my eyes, bask in Verdi’s magnificent score and forget the rest.
But nothing failed and, in my humble opinion, this new take on the life, love and death of one of the world’s most famous courtesans has at least as much merit as Zefirelli’s old, over-stuffed production. Although it may not be the perfect introduction to the opera itself, it at least shakes up (actually gets rid of) the typically lavish decors and sumptuous costumes and gives us a minimalist setting with a blindingly white, curved wall, along which runs a bench, an occasional couch and a huge, merciless clock, which is relentlessly counting the time left to terminally ill Violetta. The symbolic time-keeper stops during the blissful episode of happy country life with Alfredo, finally reveling in the joys of true love, but it soon starts ticking again when she has to leave him and go back to her former, seemingly dazzling but ultimately empty life. Dressed in modern clothes (she in a bright red dress and matching heels, the others in sleek dark suits) the cast carries on in a world stripped of all fanciness, but rich in symbolism. The story unfolds in a timeless place, but time is nevertheless ever present, and will eventually win.
With her lean figure, long blond hair and charismatic stage presence, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya quickly crushed my doubts as she handled the daunting vocal marathon with unwavering grace and aplomb. Her Violetta was warmer than expected and delivered some truly poignant moments. She had a good, spontaneous chemistry with Matthew Polenzani, but the peak of the evening was for me the long, draining confrontation with Alfredo’s father, during which she had to ride an exhausting emotional roller-coaster with no possible happy ending in sight.
As love-sick Alfredo, American tenor Matthew Polenzani offered a totally committed performance, viscerally hot-headed and endearingly vulnerable. Blessed with a genuinely lyrical voice and all-round youthful handsomeness, he had no trouble nailing his role. With a presence even more noticeable than his voice, Polish baritone Andrezj Dobber was an effective Giorgio Germont, unhesitant to ruthlessly shatter Violetta’s and his son’s ideal life before sincerely repenting for his actions. As for the seemingly all-male chorus, it had an especially meaningful part here, not only as participants in all-night parties, but also as voyeurs (The greedy, man-dominated bourgeois society?) watching the action inevitably unfold from above.
One of Verdi’s most famous scores, La Traviata abounds with climatic arias and emotionally charged moments, all flawlessly connected by naturally flowing, artlessly gorgeous music. While our eyes did not have much to feast on, we were able to focus even more on the sounds that were coming from the stage, and there was much to enjoy indeed. Maestro Noseda, who is also music director of Turin’s Teatro Regio, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Orquestra de Cadaqués, among other guest appearances (Busy guy, obviously), led the renowned Met orchestra in a lively, well-paced performance, fully supportive of the production.
All put together, the result was a successful combination of a mid-19th century Italian masterpiece and a modern-minded, daring German director. Not a trace of Euro trash was to be found there. Yes, some of it may have been a bit heavy-handed or just odd (Did we need Violetta clowning around on stage while Alfredo sings about how he misses her?), but some of it was much appreciated, like getting rid of the second intermission. As much as I feel bad about the stress it must have put on Marian Poplavskaya’s voice, it made her character’s final downfall all the more unstoppable. Plus, I have frankly always found the death scene a bit over-drawn anyway (beautiful, no doubt, but over-indulgent too), so anything that kind of speeds up the process at that point is welcome. On Wednesday night, Violetta ended up dying early and beautifully, earning herself and her castmates a long and loud ovation from a packed auditorium, before we all went home happily humming.