The Met’s updated “Traviata” morphs Verdi’s drama into stark blood sport

January 02, 2011
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of "La Traviata." Photo: Ken Howard

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.


8 Responses to “The Met’s updated “Traviata” morphs Verdi’s drama into stark blood sport”

  1. Posted Jan 02, 2011 at 5:03 pm by Eddie Lew

    So from here on, every character in La Traviata is locked into Willy Decker’s interpretation; next thing, they’ll create robots to go through the motions.

    At one time great singers brought their own interpretations to these fascinating characters, usually with Verdi’s concepts thoroughly digested, some led by great conductors who even had a connection to Verdi himself (Toscanini-Albanese) via Fausto Cleva at the Met.

    The class that Verdi gave these characters was totally stripped away by Decker, who turned Violetta into a slut, Alfredo into a petulant adolescent and Germont into a bully. Ironically, Verdi understood the subtext, but he craftily set it in a hypocritical society and gave subtlty, nuance and utter humanity to the characters. Decker chose to drag them into the gutter and turn them into caricatures.

    It may be an exciting production to some but the cliches were astounding: death stalking the stage, a clock ticking time away, a chorus pawing at Violetta in a little red dress, she “hanging it up” for the second act, a “new” Violetta ready to replace the old, used one in the Act II, sc.2. I would think such an “important” director would be ashamed to present such obviousness to a major theater.

    Of course, Zeffirelli was on everyone’s lips at the opening. His productions may have been overstuffed with period details, while Decker’s was overstuffed with the cliches. However, had Zeffirelli had truly great Violettas, like Callas (whom he directed in the very same role), or Tebaldi, no amount of overstuffed furniture would have upstaged them, as it did the midgets who perform it now.

    So let’s say good bye to the bad old days and say hello to the new silly, cliche-ridden, robotic-singers of the future.

    Gelb has a lot to answer for dragging the Met’s glorious 100-plus year history of serving the composer and the work, and to pandering to the unsophisticated and ignorant. Once the Met led, today it’s a slave to fashion. I truly pity the singers in the Met’s Young Artist’s Program. What have they got to aspire to? To become the robots of misguided directors, instead of using their own imagination to create living, breathing characters? Oh, and I pity the next great artist who can’t fit into that little red dress. We are all the losers.

    Eddie Lew

  2. Posted Jan 02, 2011 at 10:49 pm by Wally Fekula

    Bravo Eddie Law. I was at the opening on New Year’s Eve and was shocked by the crudeness and unsophistication of Decker’s program. He should confine himself to his contemporary productions in boring Switzerland.

  3. Posted Jan 04, 2011 at 12:33 pm by Edgar

    Eddie, with all due respect toward your feelings, I strongly recommend you go and see this Traviata again, maybe even a third time. I attended the dress rehearsal, and appreciate having been able to experience this production while visiting NY from Dec 23 until 30, and so was not in town for opening night on 12/31.

    It does not help anyone whining about the – admittedly glorious- past at the MET or any other opera house for that matter, be it La Scala, Vienna or Munich Staatsoper, or Covent Garden. The larger issue is, I think, what opera needs to be for today. You may be correct in sensing that the quality of a singer’s voice is now less important than his or her physical appearance (remember the hullabaloo about Deborah Voigt being disinvited from Covent Garden’s “Ariadne” because of the slim cocktail dress? I suspect the MET needs slim Traviatas for its new production and its red dress in particular. Or the huge web following endured by “barihunks”, the handsome baritones of today who almost always have to be bare chested on stage). In a time where our culture disintegrates into ever shorter bits and pieces because we cannot hold attention for a longer time, I tend to value Decker’s attempt in forcing us, if you will, to not let our attention wander (and get distracted in myriads of details a la Zeffirelli) in a setting that is stark indeed. I have the impression that this new Traviata at the MET is provoking much discussion and, hopefully, intelligent reflection on who we are today. Which is what I think opera is about.

    There will never be an “ideal” Traviata. And Verdi himself insisted that each production of his opera works best when given in costumes and setting of the present time. We each have to face the realities of the time we live in, whether we like them or not. Willy Decker’s “Traviata” does give us at least some food for thought. That is in itself a huge achievement nowadays. Otherwise, I fear, opera would degenerate into yet another of many “weapons of mass distraction”. As Claudio Abbado once wrote (I paraphrase): “e tutto scritto in Verdi” – so we do well in delving into his work again and again. A propos Switzerland: that country is not as boring as it may seem – certainly not Zurich Opera, not to mention Basel Opera.

  4. Posted Jan 16, 2011 at 12:52 am by Cales

    Well said, E.Lew,
    and what about the conductors, the musical directors—where are they to protect the singers, the art, who cares about grooming new audience for all their talk about needing young audiences, where are they supposed to learn, when these hateful men and women have their little joke on society…..what can be done—why do people accept this marxist junk, it should be confined to acting studios if they must, instead the untalented, idiot opera house directors cram it down our throats and cheat everyone…

  5. Posted Jan 16, 2011 at 10:42 am by Marie Amoruso

    We couldn’t get out of the Met fast enough (Jan 15th Production). Cohesiveness was missing; it was as if Traviata was being rewritten by someone who didn’t care about Giuseppe Verdi’s artistic effort to link his music, characters, costumes, set and libretto.

    Mr. Decker celebrated only the soprano. Unfortunately the soprano’s voice at this performance, was impeded (and cracked) by her athleticism (however, there was no stepping over the great voice of the baritone (he wasn’t asked to jump from sofa to sofe on clocks … even though the production had his character disappear into the darkness of all the other singers … telling us that he was unimportant). The blank set constantly being faced with death took all the fun out of the party and whimsical arias and moments.

    Such a depressing experience on so many levels. It was as if it were a last minute attempt to give a concert performance a bit of glitz; it was not an opera performance worthy of the Metropolitan. We will direct our subscription choice next season to miss this one and listen to Verdi’s beautiful music on Sirius Radio while we envision all the years of viewing the multitude of glorious productions from 1940′s forward that are worthy of the Met. There had to have been other Traviata productions available, n’est-ce-pas?

  6. Posted Jan 19, 2011 at 5:40 pm by Juan Carlos Calderon

    This exercise in banality, disguised as profound purpose (the clock symbolizing incoming Death, get it?). And poor Dr. Grenvil parading ad nauseum for hours (again, Death must be served in such original, antimedical way, WOW!), only show the public that the sophomores have taken over. Mr. Gelb should go back to scheduling dates for symphony orchestas.

  7. Posted Jan 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm by NINEL

    I TOTALLY AGREE. THE PSEUDO-SOPHISTICATED PRODUCTION IS UTTERLY BORING. WHEN WILL WE HAVE PROFESSIONALY TRAINED REAL OPERA DIRECTORS STAGE PERFORMANCES AT THE MET? MR. DECKER REDUCED THE CHARACTERS TO ONE-DIMENTIONAL SYMBOLS. MINIMALIZM OF MR.DECHER’S PRODUCTION DOES NOT CORRESPOND WITH VERDY’S MUSIC AT ALL. THE COSTUMES ARE UGLY AND DO NOT COMPLEMENT ANY SINGER, TO SAY NOTHING ABOUT MS. POPLAVSKAYA. ALL THE RUNNINGS AROUND AND SILLY HIDE-AND-SEEK GAME ARE USELESS AND DO NOT ADD ANY SENSE NEITHER TO THE CHARACTERS, NOR TO THE STORY ITSELF.

    MS.POPLAVSKAYA SOUNDED INCREDIBLE IN DON CARLO. ALL HER PERFORMANCES WERE CLOSE TO PERFECTION. IN TRAVIATA ALL THESE UNNECESSARY MOVEMENTS – CHOREOGRAPHY – STRIPS HER AND POLENZANI OF CONCENTRATION ON SINGING AND EXPRESSING THE CHARACTERS THROUGH THEIR VOICES AND INEVITABLY LEADS TO POOD DELIVERY OF THE ARIAS.

    IT LOOKS LIKE MR. GELB CARES MORE ABOUT FOLLOWING THE TREND OF EURO-TRASH (WHAT A BRILLIANT EXPRESSION) PRODUCTIONS INSTEAD OF CARING OF THE REPUTATION OF THE METROPOLITAN OPERA – ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT OPERA HOUSES. PROFANITY ON STAGE AND MODERNISATION OF MAJORITY OF HIS LATEST PRODUCTIONS, MINIMALISM IN COSTUMES AND STAGING UNFORTUNATELY ARE SIMPLY BORING AND SHOW HIS OWN LACK OF UNDERSTANDING WHAT OPERA IS ABOUT AND SHOW VOID IN HIS MUSIC EDUCATION.

  8. Posted Jan 26, 2011 at 8:53 am by Ariel

    This DeckerTraviata is great for
    people who lack imagination , the
    stupids who need to be reminded
    that hookers wear red , and a big clock to let us know time is fleeting.
    Banality for an audience equally so for the most part who also
    must be reminded how to behave in an opera house.The singers were
    road company at best and all
    that was missing were a few lampposts with red lights – to make
    positive that the hooker point was not missed . The banal talent of Decker
    did not serve Verdi as it seemed to
    served much of the audience that
    found it to their taste -Decker , Gelb
    know their audience .Show bizz!