Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
Director/Producer: Willy Decker
Violetta Valéry: Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo Germont: Michael Fabiano
Giorgio Germont: Thomas Hampson
There are a handful of operas in the repertoire that I think even non-opera buffs should experience at least once in their life, such as, unsurprisingly, La Traviata. A straightforward story, stunningly beautiful music, and a relatively short running time make it hands-down the ideal opera for beginners, and the perfect gift that keeps on giving for die-hard aficionados.
Add to that an assertively modern, irresistibly appealing production, which also stands as irrefutable proof that “modern” does not always have to be a dirty word when it comes to art, two of today’s fastest rising opera stars in Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva and American tenor Michael Fabiano and, last but not least, my friend Steve’s delirious raving about his evening there the previous week, and I knew it was high time to go back.
So after witnessing a tentative Marina Poplavskaya and a blazing Nathalie Dessay don the little red dress to impersonate the world's most famous Parisian courtesan years ago, I was back at The Met on Tuesday night for another round of Decker’s bold take on Verdi’s masterpiece. And this time I had the company of my friend Vy An who was more than ready to become acquainted with Violetta and Co. before jetting off to The Big Easy for a mini-vacation the next day. Life can be so hard.
The opera may be on the short side – two and a half hours with one intermission – but it probably ends not a minute too soon for the soprano intrepid enough to take on the challenge. That said, the endeavor must be rewarding enough since the sopranos who can handle the vocally and dramatically demanding part keep going back to it. So sure enough, after a successful run two years ago, Sonya Yoncheva is back at it this season, and on Tuesday was obviously relishing every second of it while making sure that the rest of us did too. From our reactions throughout the performance, one can say that this difficult mission was being smashingly accomplished.
Things is, the woman is blessed with a naturally gorgeous, fiercely expressive and effortlessly powerful voice that filled up the Met's notoriously cavernous space during big emotionally charged outbursts as well as more intimate moments, flying coloratura and soaring phrases included. Moreover, beside the expected technical feats, she had no trouble keeping her singing warm and engaging, subtly bringing out the humanity and vulnerability of her ill-fated heroine. With plenty of talent and gusto, the unstoppable soprano seamlessly went from carefree party girl to self-sacrificing woman in love to dying tubercular patient, making this Traviata as genuinely thrilling as it could get.
As Alfredo Germont, the young man who disrupts Violetta's turbulent life to give her one true shot at happiness, Michael Fabiano was not the typical wide-eyes suitor, but rather a slightly rough-around-the-edges, wildly impulsive lover whose passion only grew more intense as things were not going his way. His singing was ardent and uncompromising, and if his duets with Sonya Yoncheva did not have that ever-elusive dazzling chemistry one always hopes for, the two singers quickly built a comfortable rapport that readily made them a totally endearing couple worth-rooting for.
As the father everybody loves to hate, American baritone and Germont père veteran Thomas Hampson proved that he still has what it takes to make the most of the thankless role. The journey from his initial well-meaning sternness to his eventual sincere remorse was subtly conveyed through his delicately hued, richly colored tone while the acting was kept to a satisfying minimum.
The Met chorus, which has a fairly big job in the opera, fulfilled his duties as brilliantly as ever, whether willful participants or conspicuous witnesses of the doomed love story. As usual, their expert singing was a splendid asset to a production that will decidedly never get old.
Maybe because I have had my fair share of poor attempts at modern staging, most of them turning out to be either frustratingly half-baked or downright nonsensical, since I last saw Decker's timeless production four years ago, seeing it again on Tuesday night made me appreciate even more how a few clever props and the right vision can whip up even a quintessential classic into something boldly fresh and deeply meaningful. And let's face it, in our days of constant budget crisis in the arts, a winning minimalist set is nothing to sneeze at either. Aspiring Met directors, take note.
In the pit, Italian maestro Nicola Luisotti led an efficient, if not particularly exciting, instrumental performance. But it is hard not to get carried away by Verdi's impossibly sumptuous score regardless, and we all relished it. The orchestra confidently supported the fireworks happening on the stage as plenty of beautiful lyrical phrases were coming to glorious life, and that was certainly a laudable achievement in itself.
It was so good to see and hear it again. Some things just never get old.