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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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Opera Review: Never Send Flowers

The Met uncorks its new La Traviata.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Soprano Diana Damrau and her four-legged friend in the new Metropolitan Opera
production of La Traviata. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2018 The Metropolitan Opera.
Ask the typical Metropolitan Opera-goer which productions were liked least  in the last decade, and you'll get two answers: One, Michael Mayer's 2013 production of Rigoletto, which moved that drama to 1960s Las Vegas. Two, the 2010 La Traviata by Willy Decker, who set the opera in a sterile white space dominated by a gigantic clock, a heavy metaphor for the heroine Violetta's impending death from tuberculosis. To replace Mr. Decker's production, Met general manager Peter Gelb brought back Mr. Mayer. His assignment: to create a more congenial setting for the death of Verdi's heroine, one  would do less to offend the delicate sensibilities of the audience.

Mr. Mayer chose to set Traviata in a stylized 1851 Paris, the year of the opera's premiere. The result, despite a proliferation of 1890s mutton-chopper dresses and shifting jewel tones, is in many ways very similar to what went before. The clock is gone, replaced by a double bed that spends four incongruous acts in the middle of the raked stage. (The bed is present throughout. Is its message that Violetta is always "open for business"?) The white walls too, for a single unit set, a gilt salon that shifts colors in seeming imitation of the four seasons: green for spring, orange for autumn, etc. and a set of gilded wall decorations that change positions several times in a feeble attempt at scenery.

The Met chose to trade on recent glories in casting this Verdi drama. The young lovers Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont are sung by Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez, a dynamic onstage couple. (They have been paired in four bel canto comedies at the Met in the last decade, to great general acclaim.) However, while Ms. Damrau is an experienced Violetta who plays the part of the dying heroine with energy, gusto, and bright tone, Mr. Flórez showed that he was outmatched, both by his leading lady and by the Met forces under the baton of their new music director Yannick-Nézet-Séguin.

Armed with his smallish tenor in the Act I Brindisi, Mr.  Flórez sounded as if he had brought a pen-knife to a sword fight. No matter how sharp his blade, it was simply too small to compete, and he only sounded comfortable when singing against the offstage banda. In the later acts he sounded similarly diminished, straining his upper register to hit Alfredo's highest notes but lacking the bloom and chest power needed to make the music punch. He wasn't helped by a flat, passive acting style, the blame for which can probably be placed on the director. At the end of Act IV, one felt that this Alfredo hadn't learned a thing.

Ms. Damrau did better, although she denied the audience the thrilling high note that most sopranos (herself included) traditionally add to the end of "Sempre libera." Instead, she conserved herself for the rest of this demanding role, and waited until Act II to present the full dimension of Violetta's remarkable character. This climaxed in her big scene with Quinn Kelsey's sturdy Giorgio Germont and the following party scene, less frenzied than in the Decker and lacking that show's sense of menace and urgency. Mr. Nézet-Séguin did not help by choosing slow tempos, perhaps better to accomodate his leads but hindering the pace of the drama. Her Act IV "Addio, del passato" was a golden moment, even though the singer indulged in a bit of actor-ish coughing at a key moment.

The best singing of the night came from Quinn Kelsey, a solid, grounding presence as Germont pere. Mr. Kelsey, who is on a track from supporting player to leading man, has a firm, dark voice with a soft, round edge, singing the long and difficult Act II scene with Ms. Damrau and going from angry interloper to compassionate father. He matched the subtleties of Verdi's music in the shifting, tricky waters of "Di Provenza il mar." The only problem with this scene was the inexplicable director's decision to bring Alfredo's engaged little sister to visit his son's courtesan girlfriend. Protocol in the 19th century would dictate that any gentleman would want to keep a conversation with a woman of Violetta's social standing well away from his daughter. This interloper also appeared in Act III, first in Violetta's delirium (trailing a long wedding train across the stage in the manner of Elsa from Lohengrin) and then, inexplicably at the courtesan's deathbed along with her father, her brother and Dr. Grenville.

Let's get back to that bed for a moment. That article of furniture was present for the dance sequence, sitting incongruously in the middle of Flora Bervoix' salon. Also present: an ornate keyboard instrument (which two extras made dumb-show of playing during the Brindisi) a writing desk and a stage right ottoman made blocking difficult and repetitive, especially in the big ballet scene in Act III. (It also made hash of the repeated references in the libretto to Violetta selling her possessions as she realizes her life is ebbing.) Mr. Mayer's concept is that the whole show takes place in Violetta's memory, a set of flashbacks as she lies there in bed in her Paris apartment waiting for death. Come to think of it, that's not so different from the Decker idea of the big clock, is it?

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