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Beat the Clock

January 01, 2011

Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani Photo: Ken Howard/MET 2010

The last time I saw Verdi’s La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera in New York was just last March for the Angela Gheorghiu/Leonard Slatkin tempest in a teapot. And although it was not my original plan, on New Year’s Eve, I returned to the house for the opening performance of their “new” La Traviata production directed by Willy Decker in a recreation of his well-received and wildly-popular 2005 Salzburg Festival staging. The two productions could not be farther apart in nearly every aspect. The former 1998 Franco Zeffirelli production is all Disneyesque Euro-fantasy with its ruffles and soft edges. This new arrival is razor sharp, gorgeously modern and broadly interpretative. (Some may argue Decker has simply exchanged one set of clichés for another, but at least his are of more recent vintage.) However, while the last Zeffirelli production may represent where The Metropolitan Opera has been over the last few decades, it’s not clear whether this new production actually represents where the house is going. It might be more accurate to say that the new production represents where the house, under General Manager Peter Gelb, wishes it had been. Decker's La Traviata is the kind of success Gelb's Met would like, even if in this particular case it is already after the fact.

The "new" production has been widely seen already in the wonderful DVD recording of the original Salzburg run. Decker has stripped away virtually everything to focus almost maniacally on the impending death of Violetta adrift in a world of men. All of the action takes place in a giant empty white rotunda with a single entrance to the side. There is a bench around the back wall and a giant clock spinning towards Violetta’s death. Dr. Grenvil is present onstage throughout the whole performance watching and reminding Violetta of her fate that she is in the process of alternately embracing and running from. The entire chorus is dressed as men and Violetta pops out from the black-suited crowd in a simple bright red dress and heels with her hair tied up with a white flower. Act I also features a large red couch that Violetta climbs and sits upon even as it is hoisted above the heads of the chorus. It’s all very visually striking, and I found myself struggling to glance down at the supertitles given how drawn I was to the action on stage. Liberties are taken with the storyline, but these are relatively minor. And some of these, like the taunting of Alfredo by the masked chorus in a mock bull-fight in Act II, I felt added a lot to the overall piece.

And yet despite this, there was something missing. The whole evening had a rather ersatz feel to it like the show was a facsimile. A very good one, but a facsimile nonetheless. This is in part due to the fact that the documented original run of the production in Salzburg was a bit of an operatic perfect storm. It featured the talents of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon at the point where their own fame and talent were at a white hot moment of arrival, and the show, which is physically demanding, highlighted both their vocal prowess and their visual appeal. And while originally this evening many years later was meant to recapture that magic, those two individual singers have moved on in various directions, leaving the chores to a new set of principals. It should be said that all three of them this evening, Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani, and Andrzej Dobber all acquitted themselves admirably. But excellent as they may be, none of them are in the particular position that the prior cast was at that particular time.

I was most taken with Poplavskaya. Vocally she sounded strong throughout as she had the last time I heard her sing the role in Los Angeles. The biggest surprise to me was her acting. I’ve always found her a bit cold and stiff on stage. But this is a show that totally depends on her movement and interaction with others, and she rose to the occasion being flirty, athletic, alluring and singing her heart out at all times. This Violetta is a new benchmark for her. Polenzani’s Alfredo also called for athletics both vocal and otherwise, and he, too, put out much more than what you might expect. By the time he rolled into Act II, he was warm and agile with a lovely tone. I continue to feel that Dobber is one of the most underrated baritones around, and he clearly won over many new fans on this evening as Giorgio Germont. This may not have been the cast the production was intended for, but this was undoubtedly world-class singing. Gianandrea Noseda conducted the orchestra in a lovely, detailed performance. It didn’t always sound completely stable to me, though, as if more time was needed with the chorus to get the overall coordination in some of the scenes. Noseda's role is critical in that this is a production heavily focused on the rapid passage of time. The Salzburg performances were conducted by Carlo Rizzi at an a breakneck pace to reinforce this point, and even here in New York, the show only contains one intermission. Noseda was not to be rushed, however, and the tempi could drag a bit even if they were never slow by any normal standard.

At the close of the evening the audience was certainly peppered with some boos as Willy Decker came onto the stage, but it was largely a positive reception from where I sat. Whether or not this meant that most of the audience had been won over or that the audience's familiarity with the design had weeded out dissenters in advance of the opening is anybody’s guess. But the Met’s new La Traviata does represent the type of operatic success Gelb and his company are looking for. This attempt to recreate opera magic may not have actually achieved that goal, but it’s undoubtedly a show worth seeing from a company that is still headed in the right direction, even if it hasn’t quite arrived there yet.



Thanks Brian. It's nice to read a review that is obviously from someone not so Met centered. Your point about Gelb's intentions at modernization are important. Really most of America seems behind Europe in this minimalist staging era. But how else will opera survive?
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