Damrau makes admirable role debut in Met’s uneven “Traviata”
While the 1853 world premiere of La traviata was not a fiasco, as Giuseppe Verdi and many of his biographers have claimed, it was no triumph either. With firm faith in his opera, Verdi wrote to a friend that he would “make the world do honor” to his “poor sinner” who had been so unlucky at Venice’s La Fenice. He was good to his word and reported with pride a year later that the second run of La traviata, partly reworked, had raised a “furore.”
The Metropolitan Opera’s revival of La traviata, which opened at the house on Thursday, does scant honor to Verdi’s poor sinner. The show sounds sloppy and underrehearsed, and Willy Decker’s production, first seen in New York in 2010, numbs the mind. It epitomizes the Opera for Dummies approach to stagecraft: bludgeon viewers with ham-fisted imagery—an enormous clock (because time is running out for Violetta), a red dress (because she is a scarlet woman), and so forth—and keep on bludgeoning them until, wearied, they simply tune out.
The Met compounds the staging’s tedium by performing La traviata with a single intermission after the brief first act, after which the audience must sit and stare for a trying stretch at the unit set, a neon-white cyclorama by Wolfgang Gussmann. Its impact quickly palls, and the costumes by Gussmann and Susana Mendoza and Hans Toelstede’s lighting work no magic.
Decker’s program note highlights “the merciless rhythm” of La traviata’s music, and merciless is an apt summing-up of the tempos imposed by the normally excellent Yannick Nézet-Séguin. His reading has its strengths: the offstage dances that underpins Violetta and Alfredo’s tête-à-tête in Act I are a grim, skittish swirl, and he makes telling things of moments in the score that can pass unnoticed under the batons of lesser maestros: Violetta’s gradual but overpowering surrender to love in Ah, fors’è lui, or the ashen quivers that sound before Alfredo opens Violetta’ letter. On Thursday, however, Nézet-Séguin and his Germont agreed on tempos fitfully at best, and the stretta of the guests’ farewell in Act I came within a hair of dissolving into chaos. The scene at Flora’s salon was tidier but unfolded at a brutal, deafening volume—perhaps less an artistic choice than a side effect of the acoustically tricky set.
Diana Damrau is due to open the La Scala season in La traviata come December. These Met performances mark her role debut as Violetta, and her portrayal for now is a work in progress. Her soft singing—in the great duet with Germont, Addio del passato, and the final ensemble in particular—is opalescent and ravishing. She throws herself gamely into the acrobatics demanded by Decker, teetering on the arms and back of a sofa as she dispatches Sempre libera and singing much of the final scene either crumpled on the ground or writhing and staggering. But her performance in other respects is less admirable.
Damrau can sculpt the odd phrase powerfully (O come dolce mi suona il vostro accento, her unwarranted expression of relief before Germont bears down upon her) but in rapid exchanges she enunciates poorly and lapses into a single, nondescript vowel sound. On opening night her trills were little in evidence, and the manic staging of Dite alla giovine—during which Decker has Violetta dashing about the stage removing sofa throws and zipping herself into the red dress—worked against the customary poise and polish of her singing. She also indulged in a fair bit of scenery-chewing. (Verdi: “Even if there aren’t many vocalises in my music, singers shouldn’t take advantage of that and tear their hair out and shriek as if possessed.” The people at the Met need to read that memo.)
Plácido Domingo’s voice is a miracle, still burnished and beautiful and without a hint of wobble forty-odd years after his Met debut, and surely few artists (and those on the order of Chaliapin or Callas) have ever commanded the stage with greater authority than he. That said, he has no business singing Germont père. His performance on Thursday seemed a first read-through, with divo and maestro perpetually on different trajectories. Domingo was unable to support the role’s lowest phrases and at times his voice gave out altogether. In the nineteenth century, Verdi might have provided puntature for him: tweaks to the vocal line routinely made to accommodate a particular singer’s weaknesses and strengths. In the twenty-first century, the Met might consider replacing Domingo with Kyle Pfortmiller, this revival’s Marquis d’Obigny, who sings his smattering of lines with lusty tone and arresting flair.
After a shaky start, Saimir Pirgu turns in a memorable portrayal as Alfredo. He moves with the heedless grace of the young Alain Delon, and when he resists the temptation to push his compact lyric tenor, he becomes a remarkable singer. He has a heart-stopping moment early on (Vi fia grato?), when he asks Violetta shyly but with rapt intensity whether he should lead the toast, and he comes splendidly unhinged at Flora’s soirée.
James Courtney handles Dr. Grenvil’s thankless assignment with aplomb (in this production, he is on stage almost continuously in the guise of Dr. Death). Patricia Risley, Jason Stearns, Scott Scully, Paul Corona, Maria Zifchak, Juhwan Lee, Joseph Turi, and Sam Meredith sing and portray the smaller roles capably; Athol Farmer’s choreography, including the nightmarish cavorting of the gypsies and matadors in Act II, was less sharp on Thursday than in seasons past but remains effective. Donald Palumbo’s superb chorus sings (forte, fortissimo) well.
As presented on Thursday, this is a middling Traviata, enlivened sporadically by the virtues of Damrau and Pirgu. With time and more care (and an adequate Germont), perhaps it will manage to do honor to Verdi’s “poor sinner.”
La traviata is in repertory through April 6. metoperafamily.org; 212.362.6000.