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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Opera Review: Guilt Without Gilt

The New La Traviata at the Met.
Couch surfing: Marina Poplavskaya in La Traviata
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera's new Willy Decker production of La Traviata was a complete success on Tuesday night, from the stark, simple staging to the bravura performance of Marina Poplavskaya as Violetta. Gianandrea Noseda conducted, leading the performance with a specific vision for the work that matched the production and showed a thorough understanding of this subtle, complex score.

Verdi's most intimate opera benefits from the Decker approach: a bare, curved, white room set on a steep rake. Its only adornments: a long white bench, the occasional couch, and a gigantic clock, solemnly reminding the viewer that this is an opera about a woman whose time is running out. It is a vast improvement over the pouffes, gilt, and frou-frous that adorned the Met's past two Traviatas. Both were by Franco Zeffirelli. Each recalled the worst excesses of Busby Berkeley and Martha Stewart.
Out of time: Marina Poplavskaya in La Traviata. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera

Despite some early problems adjusting her big voice to match the dynamic level of the orchestra, Ms. Poplavskaya settled in and delivered a nuanced portrayal of Violetta. Whirling about the stage in high scarlet pumps and a red dress, she went from being every man's fantasy to every man's victim--a potent interpretation that will resonate in the minds of opera lovers for years to come.

But there is more to this performance than singing coloratura while balancing atop a couch. Ms. Poplavskaya plays Violetta as Verdi intended, capturing every facet of this jewel of a part. She tossed off the fearless fioritura of "Sempre libera" in the first act, moving her big voice with an impressive agility above the stave. As the evening progressed, (and her world collapsed) she seemed to wither away both vocally and physically. Yet her singing did not suffer: she broke hearts with the equally challenging "Addio, del passato" in the final act.

The breaking heart in question, Matthew Polenziani, was an ardent Alfredo, singing with a flood of warm tone. He coped admirably with Mr. Noseda's urgent, spitfire conducting. Alfredo is another victim in this production, of his father's bullying and the mob mentality of the Parisian party scene. The Act III re-staging of the ballet--which featured a male dancer (choreographer Athol Farmer) in Violetta's red dress and the crowd of black-tie revellers charging like a giant bull became a terrifying sequence.

As Germont père, Andrzej Dobber was a brutal figure, most notably when he struck his wayward son across the face in their Act Two confrontation. This Polish baritone took a stark, stern approach to the role that suited Mr. Decker's conception perfectly. Even the old favorite, "Di provenza il mar" sounded vaguely threatening when delivered in his growling voice. Bass Luigi Roni was onstage for most of the opera as Dr. Grenvil, playing Violetta's physician as a specter of impending Death. This, along with the giant, omni-present clock, underlined the mortal nature of La Traviata, elevating the opera to the status of Verdi's greatest tragedy.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.