Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave
Director/Producer: Michael Mayer
Diane Damrau: Violetta Valéry
Juan Diego Florez: Alfredo Germont
Quinn Quelsey: Giorgio Germont
When my Barcelona-based friend and fellow opera buff Nicole announced that she would be coming back to the U.S. for the holidays, we quickly planned to have her spend one night at my place, and then just as quickly started wrecking our brains looking for something memorable to do. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for her to find the perfect treat that would not only have nothing to do with the holidays, but also was a long-time favorite of ours: La Traviata.
Fact is, I have seen it quite a few times and she has seen it countless times. But then again, Verdi’s musical treatment of Alexandre Dumas fils’ semi-autobiographical novel La Dame aux Camélias, which was itself based on the author’s short liaison with the French courtesan Marie Duplessis, is one of those gifts that keeps on giving, and we were more than ready for another round of it.
Of course, knowing that Diane Damrau and Juan Diego Florez, two of the brightest stars in the opera world today, would sing the parts of the ill-fated couple made the offer even more attractive. I was particularly thrilled at the thought of having an opportunity to hear Florez as he most of the time sings in fluffy operas that I simply cannot bring myself to go check out, even for him.
However, a couple of days before the day, my other opera buff buddy Steve made my heart sink when he casually mentioned that Florez had just had to cancel one performance. Luckily though, on Saturday night no dreaded insert was found in our programs, and no last-minute announcement was made from the stage. Dire disappointment had been closely averted for us, and possibly some connoisseurs in the hordes of international visitors that were packing the house.
As with most masterpieces, La Traviata allows for countless possible adaptations. One of the most dazzling ones I have ever seen was Willy Decker’s still fairly recent extraordinarily bold and resolutely modern take on it. This season, the fact that my own mother very much enjoyed the HD screening of the Met’s new production by Michael Mayer a couple of weeks earlier could only mean one thing, that it would be traditional. Oh well, one cannot win every time.
One of the opera canon’s most formidable parts ― and there are quite a few of those to choose from ― Violetta is an extended obstacle course for any singer intrepid enough to tackle it. When it is done well though, the result is absolutely trilling. German soprano Diane Damrau being the consummate professional we all know and love, I was confident that her Violetta would at least be satisfying. And sure enough, although she is not a natural Verdi singer, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the emotionally and technically taxing part, and readily conquered it.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is also famous for his unequalled bel canto singing, so here again there was some queasiness on my part at the thought of him stepping into heavier Verdian territory. But it soon became clear that this was a carefully calibrated career move as he judiciously managed his impressive vocal resources, in addition to his natural charisma, boundless energy and easy chemistry with Damrau. Admittedly he’s more comfortable when flying high into the upper range, but those limitations were easily overlooked as he confidently shaped his Alfredo into a totally engaging character.
To us the wild card in the otherwise starry cast was American baritone Quinn Quelsey in the smaller but pivotal role of Giorgio Germont. However, my uncertainty was quickly put to rest when I heard his handsomely burnished voice and poised singing. His big scene with Violetta in Act II, in which he appeared not only as her lover’s disapproving bourgeois father, but also as the embodiment of the hypocritical society he belongs to, was one of the highlights of the evening, his understated sternness standing in stark contrast to her penetrating anguish.
The rest of the cast fulfilled their parts most efficiently, and the ever-reliable Met chorus got to shine as bright as ever, all of those various voices mightily contributing to making our evening at the opera a total musical success.
Since my expectations were cautiously low, the production ended up being a reasonably good surprise. I even found that having Violetta dying in her bed in the prologue and then turn the rest of the opera into memories of the past before coming back full circle to her last moments was a defendable idea after all. On the other hand, the essentially unchanging set and some misguided directing choices, such a Germont père’s daughter showing up (?!), were much less effective.
The staging had some effortlessly attractive elements going for it though, even if the extravagant combination of the endlessly intricate details of the rococo-style decor and the vivid colors of the costumes straight out of Disneyland could be a bit much. As if to briefly shake up all those over-the-top but fundamentally conventional visuals, the semi-clad dancers of the ballet sequence added a bit of PG-13 decadence to the generally safe proceedings.
But no matter what is happening on the stage, the magnificent score never fails to deliver, especially when it is played by a crack orchestra like The Met. This Traviata was the first conducting gig of Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the Met’s new music director, and while I had no doubt that we were in excellent hands, the deftly paced, beautifully nuanced, and emotionally gripping performance he drew all night from the orchestra easily exceeded my already sky-high expectations, and I am beyond excited thinking about what he has in store for the Met in the future. May the force stay with him!