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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Opera Review: Stripped (Again)

La Traviata returns to the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
No way out: Diana Damrau as Violetta.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
No production in the current repertory of the Metropolitan Opera divides opinions like Willy Decker’s stripped-down La Traviata. Mr. Decker reduces the tragedy of Violetta to its bare essence, relying on a geometric white set and simple, modern costumes to frame the tragedy of a Paris prostitute’s last shot at true love. This Spartan approach to Verdi puts the attention squarely on the singers.



This year's Violetta is Diana Damrau, in her first portrayal of the character. She displayed sweet tone and vocal stamina, with an easy athleticism in the upper range for the end of "Sempre libera." That feeling of freedom and flight was present in the first act, carrying the audience aloft, only to crash back down with the harsh reality of her ill health. Ms. Damrau, an intelligent actress, also hinted at the tragedy to come with realistic pauses and near-faints that were moving but never over the top.

There is more to Violetta than this famous aria, and it was in the later acts (taken without pause) that Ms. Damrau really began to deliver the goods. She tracked Violetta's tragic arc through her initial happiness with Alfredo  (Salvatore Cordella) in Act II, slowly coming apart as the lovers veered closer to disaster and ultimate financial ruin. In her long scene with the elder Germont (a young hopeful named Plácido Domingo) the character's vulnerability and noble character shone through.

Mr. Cordella (a late replacement for the ill Saimir Pirgu) sang the part with a pleasing, if smallish instrument, molding a supple vocal line and generating the needed force for his decidedly unheroic actions in the Act III party scene. He also found the emotional depth needed for the difficult second and fourth acts, In the finale, he  matched Ms. Damrau note for note.

The emotional core of Mr. Decker’s production is not Violetta’s fling with Alfredo but her four-part duet with the elder Germont. This was Mr. Domingo most successful effort as a Verdi baritone, a voice type he has eased into in the last years of his long career. All those Simon Boccanegras have darkened his instrument, opening a rich lower register that brightens into his tenor range when he reaches for a high note. Each repetition in "Di Provenza il mar" was injected with a fresh sense of urgency and sensitivity, redoubled in the angry confrontation with Alfredo that ends the act.

Mr. Decker's staging turns nightmarish in the Act III party scene, as masked, genderless choristers mercilessly pursue Alfredo, mocking his great love affair with an in-drag dancer who apes Violetta's movements. The Met chorus and ballet were at their best here, in a dramatically logical scene that is a vast improvement on the previous, gaudy production. Act IV follows all-too-rapidly, and the Mardi Gras celebrations take the form of the dancers' drunken (and unwelcome) invasion of Violetta's sickroom.

If conducted properly, the last act of La Traviata should break your heart. Here, that intensity was supplied from Ms. Damrau, supported by conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the orchestra pit. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is a master of molding the vocal line and supporting the singer, and knows when to apply shaded dynamics and a slowing of tempo for maximum emotional effect. All three stars of this show were at their best in this painful finale. As Ms. Damrau collapsed to the bare stage, she had come to the end of a memorable portrait of Verdi's most famous heroine. May there be many more.

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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.