La Traviata at the Met - Two Violettas for the price of one. 8.30pm Sat 21st April 2012. Re-visited on Wednesday 25th April.
This Salzburg production by Willy Decker promised much and delivered more at the Met. Already known as the “clock Traviata”, Dr Grenvil lurks throughout the evening as if a portent of death. The clock-face itself is used in many ways during the evening. Normally just marking the minutes to midnight, its hands spin at one stage and are stopped by a distressed soprano as if to delay the inevitable while she has a good time. The hands are removed in another instance and used by a picador in the bull fight scene. The clock face becomes a roulette table and finally the death bed.
On the first night under maestro Steven White Natalie Dessay sounded ill at ease, especially in the lower register which at times was almost inaudible. She only lasted to the end of ‘Sempre libera’ (leaving out the unwritten E flat) and was replaced by Hei-Kyung Hong for the remainder of the opera. The latter was excellent and she received a generous and well deserved ovation. By the Wednesday performance Ms Dessay was back in good voice although it is hard to think that this is her ideal role.
The real star of the night was Dmitri Hvorostovsky whose performance was a lesson in deportment and elegance … and who sang superbly. A bit like Sherrill Milnes at his peak, he is now a veritable vocal institution. On both the nights I attended there was applause even before he started singing. In the Saturday performance under maestro White he took some alternative vocal options in the recitatives, using grace notes, alternative high notes, appoggiaturas and other ornaments … these were all omitted on the Wednesday, perhaps because of the return of chief conductor Fabio Luisi to the podium. At all times Mr Hvorostovsky was completely in control and all the options were tasteful and relatively minor. He not only has the vocal line fully in the voice but he also takes the drama seriously and is as credible in the role as one could imagine. Every movement, from his feet to his hands, was carefully calculated as if it were individually choreographed for total realism.
His main aria, ‘Di Provenza il mar il suol’ was unhurried and immensely beautiful. Mr Hvorostovsky also sang the cabaletta following and proved to me for the first time that it DOES “fit” in the score. Many serious opera buffs say this was one of Verdi's few mistakes. Personally, I love it. But the difference here was that the Met star sang it legato and not as a syncopated ‘canter’ that others often do. He makes this rather unusual piece perfectly in character right before the end of the scene which otherwise ends abruptly with Alfredo finding the invitation and declaring his intention to seek revenge at the Paris party.
Tenor Matthew Polenzani is more than adequate as Alfredo, a role which veteran singer Vinson Cole calls a 'killer'. Polenzani has a large voice which could easily lose control … yet he schools the lines, colouring virtually every note individually using an elegant innate musicality. After a lovely cabaletta 'O mio rimorso' he also pulled off the singular feat of an exposed, extended terminal high C. For stage presence he could take some lessons from the baritone, but so could all opera singers. I cannot imagine anyone looking more comfortable, confident and natural on stage than Mr Hvorostovsky.
Mr Decker’s production is now well known from DVD's, cinema and possibly television. Some like it, some don’t. But if you cannot have the old Met Traviata production which was so lavish and grand then this is a very different and valid interpretation. It breaks rules, pushes boundaries and can claim to have various levels of meaning with the giant clock, ever-present doctor Grenvil character, red dress, red shoes and unisex chorus. For the second act there was the very clever use of bolts of highly coloured, black background, floral fabrics and projections above the curved set. The lovers were both in patterned floral dressing gowns to match the other fabrics. Scene two continues immediately without a pause as does the final act, a death scene starting in the casino. It was rather disconcerting that a stage full of people slowly emptied by ‘slow-shuffling’ backwards as the music for the next act progressed in the pit. One felt concerned that someone would fall over … and it served little dramatic purpose to my mind.
Decker includes Violetta in the beginning of Act II using a hide-and-seek segment with Alfredo, causing some incongruity with the libretto … but this is the theater! Some of the translations were changed to suit the production: ‘Did you need me?’ sings Annina, played by Maria Zifchak, rather than ‘Did you call me?’ (there was no bell as is traditional). As the happy rustic affair sours with the arrival of Alfredo’s father the coloured fabrics are pulled off the white sofas. Likewise, the floral projection above turns gradually to monochrome.
The enormous hyperbolic curved set restricts the possible movements to a single entrance on the left and a gallery above the ‘dip’ of the hyperbola. There is also a huge curved bench reminiscent of the whispering gallery in St Paul’s cathedral in London. And true to form, at sensitive spots in this ‘amphitheatre’, there is accentuation of the voices through focused reflection of the sound into the auditorium. On the whole it was all rather beautiful and the performances were highly enjoyable for this patron.
Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (currently in the middle of Ring Cycle 2 at the Met along with over 100 other Aussies!)
Opera blog: http://andrewsopera.blogspot.com/