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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Opera Review: If Love is a Red Dress

Sonya Yoncheva triumphs in La Traviata.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Champagne supernova: Sonya Yoncheva in La Traviata at the Met.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Wednesday night,  the penultimate La Traviata of this current Metropolitan Opera season featured Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. In a thrilling performance, she met both the challenge of this role and this peculiar, demanding production, one which has divided audience members since its 2011 premiere.

The success of a performance of La Traviata rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading lady. Violetta  Valéry is one of the most challenging roles in the operatic canon, requiring the soprano to be completely in the moment for three acts and to sing a wide range of notes, tonal colors and emotions projected into the voice. From her entry in the first act, pursued across the white chamber by a gaggle of tuxedoed suitors and well-wishes, Ms. Yoncheva was completely in the moment, stopping only to deliver a vibrant brindisi and an occasionally thrilling, well-placed Sempre libera.

The Metropolitan Opera's current staging is not an easy show to star in. Director Willy Decker removes away the plush furniture and 19th-century costumes from the show, confining Violetta to a single, antiseptic chamber where she is pursued by the ravages of her disease and the specter of Death itself, who takes the form of her physician Dr. Grenville. The opera becomes a nightmarish and very personal tragedy, with the sighing orchestra taking on the sound of Violetta's struggle to draw breath.

Ms. Yoncheva is the second soprano to sing Violetta this season at the Met. She is a dark-haired beauty in the Eastern European mold. Her instrument is sweet, smoldering in its middle range before blooming into a bright but never shrill upper register. As the opera progressed, she pushed herself into the complex corners of this character, making much of the Act II scenes with Alfredo and her big confrontations with Germont pére et fils.

Francesco Demuro was a vocally strong, emotionally shallow Alfredo, less a character than a symbol set up to move the story forward. Mr. Demuro sang with a slightly cool approach, sounding accurate rather than passionate in the early duets. While he met the vocal demands of the early acts, Mr. Demuro came off as petulant in the big party scene in Act III. His rejection of Violetta was a child's tantrum, and the last act was played as if she had not quite forgiven him yet.

Far more satisfying was the performance of Alexei Markov as Giorgio Germont. Mr. Markov displayed a black-toned low baritone that varied in volume across the acoustically friendly set, sounding positively thunderous when he stood in an acoustic "sweet spot" on the raked stage. His changing emotions toward Violetta were displayed clearly in the vocal line, a detail many baritones miss. The baritone sang a show-stopping Di provenza il mar in the second act, using his plush lower register to support the melodic line. Finally it is all to the good that gratuitous acts of misogynistic violence that Mr. Decker originally gave to Germont has been thoughtfully toned down.

In the stark finale, Ms. Yoncheva dominated the stage vocally while physically wilting away. In that stark white space, her chilling, ghostly Addio, del passato was simply riveting. The final ensemble drew some question as to whether Violetta wanted comfort from Alfredo or from Giorgio Germont, an interesting directorial decision that made for some compelling theater. The entire performance was driven forward at a steady pace by Marco Armiliato in the pit, and the Met chorus, clad entirely in black tie and often wearing masks, were their usual, precise and welcome selves.

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