The Met’s updated “Traviata” morphs Verdi’s drama into stark blood sport
A sleek set, contemporary dress, and red stilettos for Violetta: in the run-up to the New Year’s Eve premiere, Willy Decker’s production was billed as the sexy new Met Traviata that would sweeten the retirement of Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish period piece for even the most conservative audience members.
But what operagoers got on New Year’s Eve was a stark and brooding vision of a woman hounded to death by a cruel mob. It was an effective reminder of why Verdi insisted that the costumes in this opera, his only based on a true story of his own time, should “remain those of the present day” in order to maximize its shock value.
Decker and designer Wolfgang Gussmann threw his protagonists into a bullfighting ring: a circular set, surrounded by a high wall, with only one exit point and a giant clock keeping time. The chorus, with both men and women dressed in identical dark suits, occasionally invades the arena, but more often peers over the wall high above, leering at the dying woman below and egging her on with stylized, choppy gestures. This is opera as blood sport, and the audience, as the lack of a stage curtain suggests, is every bit as complicit in Violetta’s suffering as a spectator placing bets on a cock fight. With little to distract the eye, attention was inexorably focused on the opera’s heroine. And between the pitiless clock and the sinister Doctor Grenvil–here a premonition of death stalking Violetta–there was never any question that she would exit the arena alive.
When Decker’s production first premiered at the Salzburg festival in 2005, the title role was sung by Anna Netrebko opposite a vigorous Rolando Villazón. Here, it was the turn of Marina Poplavskaya who brought to the character the same moving mixture of fragility and dignity as she did to Elisabeth in Don Carlo earlier this season. Much of that is due to her voice, which is warm and noble and delivered with unforced power. In the early party scenes, one might have wished for more brilliance and clarity – her Sempre libera, which saw her struggling with some of the high notes, felt more like a glass of heavy Sauternes than champagne. But she was heart-wrenching in the final act, coloring Violetta’s fight against death with fine nuances of hope, resignation and despair.
Alfredo was sung by Matthew Polenzani. He has a pleasant, smooth tenor and although it is somewhat lacking in power, he was here aided by the curved wall of the set which helped amplify the voices. In duet with Poplavskaya, he comes out sounding younger, which highlights the boyish, impetuous side of the lover. Besides, this was a production in which characters seemed to genuinely sing to communicate with each other rather than make public declarations. Duets, in particular, often felt like spoken theater, with singers moving fluidly and, it seemed, comfortably, about the stage, reacting to each other.
Here, credit has to go to Decker for his brilliant stage direction. Rarely has Alfredo’s showdown with his father, sung with a vibrant baritone by Andrzej Dobber, been so intensely physical. The beginning of Act II, in which Violetta and Alfredo enjoy their brief run of make-believe bliss, sees the two goofing around, chasing each other and playing hide-and-seek. Sweet and funny, it was a scene that made the characters seem painfully young and likeable. It also made Alfredo’s subsequent jealous rage all the more shocking, when he not only throws his gambling wins at Violetta but tries to stuff bank notes up her dress. His father, while berating his son for humiliating a woman in public, is not above grabbing some of the money off the floor.
The orchestra, led by Gianandrea Noseda, did not always rise to the same level of intensity. The first act saw a good deal of indifferent playing and some unsettling coordination problems. There were exquisite moments later on, such in Addio, del passato where the solo oboe became an extension of Poplavskaya’s voice. The members of the Met chorus sounded magnificent, even from behind some nightmarish white masks with which they taunt the lovesick Alfredo.
This was not a production that offered many comforts to either the singers or the audience. But, as Violetta reminds us, wincing as she slips on her five-inch stiletto heels, comfort is not always in the nature of beauty.
La Traviata plays at the Met through January 29. metopera.org; 212-362-6000.