Covering for Dessay, Hong scales the heights in Met’s “Traviata”

April 07, 2012
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Hei-Kyung Hong in the Metropolitan Opera revival of Verdi's "La Traviata." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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.; 212-362-6000.

19 Responses to “Covering for Dessay, Hong scales the heights in Met’s “Traviata””

  1. Posted Apr 07, 2012 at 4:10 pm by jane Marsar

    Terribly disappointing was the overall starkness of the set. It didn’t lend to an emotional experience. After just reading the previous review, I’m guessing we were at two different operas. Not for me

  2. Posted Apr 07, 2012 at 11:51 pm by Ron

    Outstanding review! Why this wonderful soprano is not featured more is beyond me. Next season she has two performances listed and is probably the cover for the two operas. She always gives a performance to remember and should have a bigger career. Mr. Gelb has no clue sometimes.

  3. Posted Apr 08, 2012 at 10:02 am by Eddie Lew

    She is one of the best sopranos the Met has, so superior to Gelb’s glamour-pusses like Dessay, Netrebko and Poplavskaya. He has a tin ear and questionable taste and is dragging the Met’s glorious reputation for great voices – since 1883! – into the gutter. There are empty seats, night after night, when his “stars” sing, and his “genius directors ply their concepts. Is anybody noticing that there are so many empty dark nights listed for next season? that is a symptom of a dying company – no one is coming.

  4. Posted Apr 08, 2012 at 7:52 pm by Sempre liberal

    I loved Hei-Kyung Hong, her colaratura was crisp and accurate in Act I. Her “addio al passato” (with both verses!) was heart-wrenching. She looked gorgeous. My only criticism is that her voice was, at times, a little small for the house.

  5. Posted Apr 09, 2012 at 7:38 am by Peter

    I have to agree with Jane’s comments. This set production may appeal to European audiences with it’s stark minimalism and cold aesthetic, but here in the states many people will find it disappointing compared to a classic production. But that isn’t the only problem.

    The sum result of this modern set is that any spark of romance and passion from the performers must compete and overtake the coldness of this set and with the exception of Hvorostovsky, none were able to do so. Not a knock against the performers, on the contrary they were uniformly excellent, it’s just asking an additional task that shouldn’t be necessary. Costumes, lighting and set design should enhance and compliment. Unfortunately here we have bold, arrogant modernism that distracts from the subtleties and shades of beauty offered in La Traviata.

  6. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm by Alfonso Affinito

    I didn’t see Hong’s performance, but I’ve always admired her work and her dependabitllity to deliver the goods. I agree that she deserves more productions at the Met.
    It has reminded me that there is another soprano who covers and is occasionally given a role. Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs is a vocal and dramatic knockout, and how and why they keep hiding her is a great mystery. Look her up on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

  7. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm by Danielle Joly

    I disliked the production profoundly and as much as I appreciate Nathalie Dessay,she should have passed on singing today. I lived in fear that she would miss another high note as she did in the first act. In my humble opinion, she did herself more harm than good.

  8. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm by Peter George

    We have just returned from the HD broadcast in London. Miss Dessay was off form, and clearly not happy with herself at the end when she was taking the bow.

    We normally enjoy The Met’s performances because they tend to be traditional, but unfortunately modern directors are now being allowed to peddle their arrogant wares. These invariably detract from the performance. You are constantly wondering why all the women in the chorus are dressed as men, for instance; or why there are bicycles on the stage (Bayreuth’s Ring a couple of years ago); or why The Flying Dutchman is set in the trading room of a bank, with nary a ship or sailor in sight (Deutsche Oper). Opera is music and singing: the production should be invisible, not puzzling. However, it is fun to boo loudly when the production team come on for a bow (Royal Opera House, Tristan and Isolde two years ago). We felt like an Italian audience. Marvellous.

    Act II of La Traviata takes place in a comfortable country house, where the Lady and Gentleman live a gracious life on the Lady’s previous earnings. Who knows or can bother what the sofas covered in flowery material meant? Or that the Lady and Gentleman were in their underclothes? This is silly, and we do not admire at the brilliance of the interpretation.

    Increasingly concert performances appeal to us, where we can use our imagination, and listen to the orchestra and singers unfettered by a conceited producer.

  9. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 6:48 pm by BE

    Bowled over by Dessay’s acting; her singing was very fine, she only struggled with a high note or two. SETS ABSOLUTELY PRETENTIOUS! Violetta is a Christlike figure; an opera set in 19th century Paris needed a crucifix somewhere to get the point across, but of course minimalist post-moderns haven’t a clue about religion.

  10. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 6:55 pm by Craig Stine

    Listened to today’s Traviata broadcast…I agree with Danielle; Natalie Dessay should have passed on singing today!! her performance was just dreadful!

  11. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 7:46 pm by Brunhilde Spitz

    It is difficult for me to read these negative reviews and will not visit this site again. Have any of these negative folks ever tried to sing perfect (what is perfect?), act out an emotional scene, concentrate on all the things that need to be considered while singing to such a huge audience and a camera, sing like a bird while lying down, etc. etc. etc. One of the incredible features of an opera is that these folks carry out multiple artistic talents, simultaneous, and they are human and therefore cannot always sing every note perfectly. Be realistic! Brunhilde Spitz

  12. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 8:00 pm by Ken

    We saw the HD performance this afternoon. The singing of Ms Dessay and Mr. Hvorostovsky were excellent. But . . . the sparse production was just awful. Enough of the huge clock and Dr. Death-I get it already! Why were the women dressed like men at the party, and both the men and women were all dressed in black? That’s one hell of a party! And the scene with the red flowered robes, red flowered throws on the couches, and red flowered background? If I were a design teacher and a student turned this in as an assignment, I would grade him with a “C” with a one word comment: “Floribunda!” Why was he prancing around in his skivies and she in her satin slip? Good thing nothing fell out! It’s a shame that such an awful production detracted from such beautiful music and singing.

  13. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 10:13 pm by Thing One

    I saw it at The Met this afternoon and have to say I loved the set. Really one of the best productions I’ve seen this season and I’ve seen a lot.

    And I can’t speak generally but the people I spoke to on site liked the set so the Americans won’t like it’s bunk. And the performers got huge applause at the end. As much as any production I’ve seen this season.

    I’ll see it again next week. That’s how much I liked it.

  14. Posted Apr 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm by Thing One

    “There are empty seats, night after night, when his “stars” sing, and his “genius directors ply their concepts.”

    Wish it were so. Tried to get into Manon tonight at the last minute. No go.

    I was in Orchestra for La Traviata earlier in the day and I didn’t see any empty seats.

    Went last night to The Valkeries, again Orchestra, and only saw two empty seats around Row D, right side.

    Yes, it’s been a lot of opera for me the past week or so.

    Last time I saw a lot of empty orchestra seats was for that Russian one whose name escapes me.

    When netrebko sings good luck getting a decent seat. Anna Bolena and Manon are both tough tickets.

    I’m not speaking theoretically. I’m speaking as someone that goes to The Met.

  15. Posted Apr 15, 2012 at 4:45 am by Kate Sroka

    What an irony that Natalie Dessay was genuinely ill on Saturday afternoon as she performed the role of Violetta with heart-wrenching intensity and beauty. Her slightly flawed vocal performance in this case only enhanced it – such is the value of a live performance. Production however was not enhanced by women dressed up as men for no apparent reason and the glorious love scene of the 2nd Act was sadly ridiculed, and therfore wrecked, by boxer shorts and messing about with lavish fabric samples.

  16. Posted Apr 15, 2012 at 8:36 am by Te

    Worst production ever of a great opera

  17. Posted Apr 17, 2012 at 9:07 am by leila marzagao

    Cheap symbolism of Mr Willy Decker and Miss Dessay should be taught how a SICK Violetta should walk ,she is not in “La fille Mal guardee” ( where she was brilliant by the way)

  18. Posted Apr 17, 2012 at 11:45 am by Charles Ingram

    I also saw the live HD performance in Georgia. The singing, while not great, was adequate and touching at times.

    I am not one who is fond of these new directors with their “let’s do something new for its own sake” attitude. I do understand the concept of making a production more “modern” but it misses the point that opera is first and foremost about the music and singing.

    Try performing the text of an opera and see how silly it will be.

    And then the question becomes if a piece has to be updated to be understood by contemporary audiences, why not put a rhythm section in the orchestra and let them update the music also? Why not have hip-hop dancers instead of the ballet?

    As for Alfredo in his boxer shorts, it’s too bad that once something is seen it cannot be unseen.

  19. Posted May 03, 2012 at 4:09 am by Thing One

    Thing One saw it again tonight 5-2-2-12 (understudy doing Dessay role. I liked Dessy more).

    All the whining about the set but they keep selling it out. And everyone in my section of the orchestra liked the set including the old-timers. I really think part of the entire opera experience is complaining.