Covering for Dessay, Hong scales the heights in Met’s “Traviata”
What does an opera singer need to grab the headlines? Nowadays, she might need a personality disorder, an army of hyperventilating hucksters, or a fashion model’s looks at any cost—even if it means, on occasion, a lack of musical chops.
Hei-Kyung Hong, who sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Verdi’s La traviata on Friday night, has beauty aplenty but perhaps too much integrity and genuine worth to make for colorful copy. Not for her splashy galas and grist for gossip mills; instead, in her nearly thirty years with the company, she has brought eloquence and sterling musicianship to repertoire ranging from Handel to Corigliano. Stepping in for an indisposed Natalie Dessay on Friday, this gentle Mimì and ladylike Countess Almaviva showed that she can summon vocal freshness and, well, raunch that would do a twenty-something proud.
Violetta shows considerable flesh in Willy Decker’s staging of La traviata, first seen at the Met in 2010.LINK In Act I, she beckons her johns holding a champagne bottle suggestively and hitching her skirts up to flash her wares. In Act II, Alfredo flings his gambling earnings into her face and also stuffs cash down her bodice and between her legs.
Wolfgang Gussmann’s unit set, a white cyclorama bathed in chilly, clinical light by Hans Toelstede, is as austere as Franco Zeffirelli’s previous Met productions were elephantine. There is a huge clock, because Violetta is living on borrowed time. Doctor Grenvil, an ominous grim reaper, rarely leaves the stage. And the men of the chorus leer over the back wall to ogle Violetta as she is abused but shrink away as she lies dying. Yes, all of the choristers are men, because all of the ladies are dressed in drag. At least Zeffirelli’s dancing cow is out to pasture.
Decker’s production, in short, has the simplistic defects of its stark virtues, but it has been shorn of its most annoying business in this revival. In the staging’s first outing, Marina Poplavskaya’s twitchy, spastic Violetta seemed to suffer from Saint Vitus’s Dance and not consumption; Hong, instead, portrayed Violetta with less fuss and decidedly more power. She played the strumpet to the hilt in Act I—as Verdi wrote, “a whore must be a whore”—and, one or two sinewy high notes aside, sang with immaculate beauty. She scaled down her tone to a tear-drenched shimmer in Dite alla giovine, tossed off Sempre libera with both polish and abandon, and never failed to infuse the text with meaning or taper Verdi’s phrases with exquisite finish. Natalie Dessay is a cherished artist, but it is hard to understand why Hong was the understudy for this Traviata and not the scheduled star. It’s long past time for the Met to build a showcase production around her.
In keeping with the staging’s conceit, Matthew Polenzani was a spineless, simpering schlump of an Alfredo. While he may lack the ultimate degree of vocal glamour, he nonetheless sang extremely well, filling De’ miei bollenti spiriti and O mio rimorso with incisive energy. He also pulled off a heart-stopping moment in Act I, transforming that fleeting instant when frivolous banter becomes a declaration of love into something rare and vertiginous. Those few seconds pass unnoticed in most performances, but on Friday night Polenzani made magic with them.
As father Germont, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was smug, hectoring, and platitudinous—that is, more or less ideal in the role. Early on, he tended to put too much pressure on his tone, as he is wont to do in Verdi but he spun prodigiously long lines, his baritone glorious from its velvety black depths to the insolent ease of its upper extension. His Di Provenza elicited uproarious, nearly startled acclaim from the audience, its every phrase both satiny and cannily chiseled. And while there is no reason to hear both verses of Germont’s cabaletta when the second is not embellished, it was a welcome chance to revel for a few more moments in the intoxicating beauty of Hvorostovsky’s voice. Dramatically he made Germont’s big moments tell, standing cold and unmoved when Violetta asked him for an embrace but clasping Alfredo in a stranglehold before Flora’s revelers erupted.
The Met this season has almost unfailingly cast smaller roles superbly, and this Traviata was no exception. As the Marquis, Kyle Pfortmiller enunciated crisply and dazzled with his rich, compact tone. Jason Stearns was a foppish brute as Baron Douphol—that is high praise—and Patricia Risley a giddy and musically accomplished Flora. Luigi Roni sang Grenvil’s few lines with gravitas and sensitivity, and Scott Scully was an admirable Gastone. Maria Zifchak as Annina and Peter Volpe, Juhwan Lee, and Joseph Turi in smaller roles all sang well. Solo dancer and choreographer Athol Farmer contributed louche and potent moves, as required.
On the podium, Fabio Luisi conducted without poetry but competently, at his best in the portentous chords that underpin Violetta’s final moments and the tense, slithering figures heard as Alfredo reads Violetta’s letter. The Met chorus under Donald Palumbo sang splendidly.
More than most operas, La traviata stands or falls on the strength of its heroine. With all good wishes to the magnificent Natalie Dessay, Hei-Kyung Hong will be a tough act to follow. So much the better for Verdi and Met audiences.
La traviata runs through May 2, with a Live in HD broadcast on April 14. metopera.org; 212-362-6000.