Composer :Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Willy Decker
Violetta Valéry: Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont: Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Why stop at one Verdi opera when you can attend two in a row? Unlike Macbeth, which was a last-minute decision, La Traviata had been long planned and eagerly awaited for months. I was actually so excited at the prospect of seeing it with Natalie Dessay that I did not pay attention to the starting time, which was again the dreaded 8:30 pm. And to think that all that commotion is due to the obscenely expensive, monstrously complex and ultimately preposterous sets of the current Ring cycle makes you really question the sanity of the Met’s powers-that-be.
Willy Decker’s modern take on La Traviata has stirred some controversy too as opera goers have voiced strong – if overall positive – opinions on its uncompromising boldness ever since it came out. But aren’t ground-breaking artistic endeavors supposed to spark off stimulating conversations anyway? While it is totally understandable that this daring experiment cannot be everybody’s cup of tea, no one can deny that it manages to preserve the fundamental essence of the original opera while putting its very own stamp on it. And that is no small feat.
Seeing it last year was a revelation for me, so when I heard that Natalie Dessay had been tapped by the Met to don the little red dress this season, along with Met regulars Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a second visit to the minimalist set was inevitable. After a couple of days of panic upon hearing that Ms. Dessay was ill and may not be able to perform on Tuesday night, the rumor thankfully proved to be just that, and after my premium orchestra seat the night before, I happily took my less glorious but still priceless spot in the Family circle.
One of Verdi’s most popular operas – and God knows the competition is fierce – La Traviata was inspired by the equally famous French novel La Dame aux Camélias of Alexandre Dumas fils. Despite a less than auspicious debut, the sentimental story of the ill-fated Parisian courtesan (That certainly sounds better than “high-priced hooker”, doesn’t it?) who finds and loses her one and only chance at true love has enthralled audiences the world over for a long time now. And that is most likely because, even if the story is borderline maudlin, the gloriously lyrical score has remained pretty much unsurpassed.
With her petite frame, quirky looks and visceral acting talent, French soprano Natalie Dessay is not your typical opera diva. Her voice is not overly big either, but its power of expressiveness is absolutely spellbinding. While on Tuesday night it took her a couple of minutes to shift into full range, there was no stopping her once she got to that magical place. Whether a carefree party girl, a blissfully in love woman or a terminally ill patient, she blazingly conveyed the convoluted emotional and physical journey her character was going through as the end of her life was slowly but inexorably coming ever closer.
As lovelorn Alfredo, American tenor Matthew Polenzani had a wonderful night as well. I had already seen him nail that part last year, so I did not expect anything else, but it was still a real pleasure to hear his ardent and supple voice bring vibrant life to his young and hot-blooded character. His easy chemistry with Natalie Dessay made them an instantly credible and lovable couple, but it is in the heated scene with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who impersonated his father, that he really got a chance to show his tremendous vocal possibilities.
Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has been proving he has all the right stuff for a while now, and his turn as the seemingly pitiless but eventually moved Germont père has to be counted as yet another memorable tour de force for this versatile artist. His genuinely aristocratic presence and richly velvety singing were in full display all night, especially during the two major scenes with Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani.
This semi-new production has been a solid hit since it first came out, finally demonstrating that modern can be creative and successful. All it took was to authoritatively get rid of the traditional elaborate décors and sumptuous costumes and replace them with a curved, mostly empty, white set, an implacable giant clock, an omnipresent mysterious figure, several highly symbolic moments and fabulous singers. Et voilà! The absence of superfluous distractions allows the audience to fully focus on the emotionally charged interactions among the three protagonists, some crucial elements of the story, and Verdi’s stunningly beautiful score.
As far as music goes, La Traviata is definitely a Verdi grand cru, even for such a natural master of melodic lines and dramatic effects. For over one and a half century now, the opera has grabbed everybody’s attention with unforgettable arias that make daunting demands on the singers and lasting impressions on the listeners. Predictably, the soprano has to do most of the heavy lifting with the show-stoppers “Sempre Libera” and “Addio del passato”, not to mention the formidable three-hitter “Donna son io”, “Non sapete” and “Dite all giovine”. But the guys still get their moments in the spotlight too with “Dei miei bollenti spiriti” for Alfredo and “Di Provenza il mare” for his father.
Under the informed baton of Fabio Luisi, the reliably excellent Met orchestra sounded in top form and negotiated the timeless composition with plenty of vigor and attention to detail. They knew exactly when to hold back and when to come out in full force, all the better to serve the story. Add to that the riveting human touch provided by the magnificent singers, and it is easy to see why this Traviata has unquestionably become my top Met production of this season.
Two down. Two to go.