Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Still Got It

April 29, 2012

Matthew Polenzani and Natalie Dessay Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012
Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Except what you read here, of course. I was reminded of this universal truth last night at the penultimate performance of Verdi’s La Traviata this season at The Metropolitan Opera. This is the well-regarded Willy Decker staging the Met imported from the 2005 Salzburg Festival for the 10/11 season as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to stage opera that is actually worth seeing as much as it is hearing. I loved this production when I saw it with Marina Poplavskaya in the starring role on New Year’s Eve in 2010, and decided to see it again while in town for the current Ring cycle performances (more on that later). Another big motivating factor was a chance to see Natalie Dessay as Violetta, a stunt I’d seen her perform before in Santa Fe in 2009. But heavens she’s taken a beating on the old intertubes over this one as it seems she often does when it comes to New York. She was ill at the opening of this run missing the first performance. She hasn’t been able to finish at least one other show and scorn over her appearance in the Met’s HD Live broadcast in the run is just a click away online.

So while she and the company may have benefited from lowered expectation on Saturday’s outing, I can say the show and she were pretty awesome. Whatever ailment she may have been suffering from earlier on had cleared up by Saturday. Admittedly, she is not the first voice that leaps to mind for Violetta, but she brought plenty to the role vocally. Her coloratura is still in great shape and she certainly produced more of the notes in Violetta’s big Act I closer than I’ve heard in quite awhile. And as for the rest, there was nothing to be ashamed of whatsoever. With Dessay, though, the package always includes first-rate acting and it did so here as expected. She was a touching, believable Violetta from entrance to exit. What surprised me most is that despite the noticeable contrast in height between her and especially Dmitri Hvorostovsky who portrayed Giorgio Germont, Dessay was able to avoid simply lapsing into a child-like innocent portrayal of the heroine. It was a richly-hued and ultimately very touching performance. I know the haters gotta hate, but I don't get it. She's fascinating to watch on the stage and invariably produces first rate performances as she does here. I know that I for one will be eager to see her again.

As for the rest of the team involved in the production, the show went from strength to strength. Conductor Steven White filled in for Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi who was taking an unbelievable night off after conducting just about everything on the Met stage over the last month including Die Walküre earlier the same afternoon I was there. Yes, the Met Opera orchestra can play Traviata in their sleep, and yet they never sound that way with a performance Saturday as spirited and polished as you’d hear anywhere else. Hvorostovsky didn’t disappoint with flawless turns in both his Act II arias. Returning from last season’s cast was the Alfredo, tenor Matthew Polenzani. And as last year, I was taken by how much this production seems to pull out of him acting-wise. He’s lusty, angry and his stage slap from Hvorostovsky in Act II was so well played that some people in the audience gasped in response. Frankly I didn’t know that a slap onstage could still do that, especially in an opera, but there you have it. So why haven’t you seen this already? The show has one more outing this year on Wednesday May 2, so ignore what you’ve read elsewhere. This is a performance to see with one great singing actor in Natalie Dessay - believe it.


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