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13 April, 2013

La Traviata at the Met. Domingo tenor, conductor and now baritone. Violetta next?

La Traviata - Tuesday 26th April 2013. Metropolitan Opera, New York City.

Violetta - Diana Damrau
Alfredo - Saimir Pirgu
Papa Germont - Placido Domingo
Conductor - Yannick Nezet-Seguin
Production - Willy Decker (the “clock” Traviata).

Dear Colleagues,

This was a highly memorable performance in every respect. The production is novel and quite the opposite of the traditional. The formal interiors of Acts 1 and 3 are replaced by a stark stage containing nothing but a full-width semi-circular rear bench at the right side of which sits an enormous clock face with real hands and a variable pace ticking the minutes down. For the initial duet a large rectangular two-seater sofa appears, at one stage held aloft by muscular chorus members who are all wearing tuxedoes, even the women.

Five or six such sofas are used in Act 2, despite one being sufficient for two lovers. The use of floral fabric with matching projections on the ceiling … with the bright colours fading to black-and-white … brilliant concept and execution as Violetta’s hopes for happiness fade.

The scene at Flora’s house is also bare-bones with the clock recycled as a gaming table, and quite effectively, as Alfredo throws money at a humiliated Violetta and an admonishing Papa Germont sings from the mezzanine above, a deep, parabolic back-drop above the ubiquitous bench. The chorus reversed out in a unique slow-motion manoeuvre allowing act 3 to commence without a break. They returned briefly for the carnival bars which are normally heard from the street outside (again turning the usual production on its head while still being largely consistent with the libretto).

After the (single) break following the first act I found myself sitting with Placido Domingo junior, in the front stalls to support his father. “Aren’t you Maestro’s son, Mr Domingo?” He confessed and bubbled about his father’s continued international success, as one would. He had only nice things to say about Australia. This is just a New York story, something which if it happened anywhere else would be fantasy but here it can and does happen all the time because of the ‘gravity’ of the place. [I also found that Harry Belafonte was at the next table at a midtown restaurant the following week!]

Ms Damrau was better matched both vocally and dramatically than Natalie Dessay last year. It is neither fair nor is it necessary to compare Domingo with Dmitry Hvorostovsky, the consummate baritone of the age. Both are magnificent in their own individual ways. When Dmitry has done a few tenor roles we might be able to make a fair comparison.

The young Albanian tenor Samir Pirgu looked and sounded excellent, despite omitting the optional high C in Act 2 and cracking briefly in the final scene (Parigi, o cara). He is the best looking tenor I have seen in a long time, so many others being gawky tall or short and fat, one of the truths of opera. But he was not chosen for his looks alone, possessing a pleasing, smooth and accurate line but with just a hint of singing above the note at times.

Another ‘truth’ of opera is that people sound different on the radio and on recordings. In the Saturday broadcast later that week Mr Pirgu sounded less smooth, almost to vocal roughness with an odd timbre to the voice. Nerves play some part perhaps yet as a season progresses the ‘chemistry’ between singers usually improves. Whatever, the adrenalin was flowing and in this performance he chose to hit the high note ending ‘O mio rimoso’ cabaletta. It was not all that long, but quite respectable and had the crowds responding enthusiastically. I do hope he does not burn himself out like Mr Villazon did (I note that he is slated for yet another return in a few months and one can only wish him well). In the radio broadcast there were no swallowed or gargled notes from the tenor in the sections I heard (although there was an audible cough before his high C).

For the Saturday broadcast performance Mr Gelb came to the stage at the start of Act 2 to announce that Mr Domingo was suffering from ‘allergies’ but would continue to sing ‘for the public’. He sounded to be in reasonable voice yet early in Act 2 he appeared to be clipping some notes yet nothing serious went awry. From his big aria Di Provenza he settled into his role more comfortably. I am pleased I was not sitting next to Sig Domingo junior for THAT performance.

The conductor Mr Yannick Nezet-Seguin continues a long tradition of Canadians at the Met. Two of their general managers and some of the most important singers of each generation have come from north of the border. And the new Ring’s genius is Robert LePage, also Canadian.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..

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Late news: Despite seeing the first Met Ring opera yesterday (Rheingold) I still have the strains of Caesar going around my brain. Is there a cure for all those repeats? A friend wrote to say the cure was to sing the national anthem and that it always works for him!