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A Soprano Plans to Deliver A Violetta to Die For

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"I feel uncomfortable with the attention,” grumbled the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya when asked about the recent flurry of interest surrounding her, including profiles in The New York Times and The New Yorker, the latter a sprawling piece under the title “Travels With a Diva” by Gay Talese. “Maybe because I’m a quiet person inside. I like to keep my inner peace for as long as possible. But I also understand the interest.”

The attention is not unsurprising. The 33-year-old Poplavskaya [pronounced puh-PLAHV-sky-uh] was an unknown in the U.S. just five years ago, barely able to speak a word of English and having seldom traveled outside her native country. But this season she has the unusual distinction of headlining back-to-back Metropolitan Opera premieres of major new Verdi productions. In each, she's stepping in for another well-known soprano.

On New Year's Eve, the Met unveils Willy Decker’s sleek, new minimalist staging of Verdi’s La Traviata, first seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2005. The company tapped Poplavskaya as its Violetta after Anna Netrebko dropped out of the production to avoid competing with her own DVD of the performance recorded at Salzburg.

Last month, Poplavskaya stepped in for Angela Gheorghiu to play Elisabeth de Valois in a new Met production of Verdi’s Don Carlo. The Financial Times praised her ability to "project the agonies of the character with pathos, urgency and grace, look exquisite, and shade Verdi's arching lines with beguiling finesse."

While Don Carlo is considered the opera lover’s opera, La Traviata represents the people’s Verdi, with some beloved arias and a story fit for a Hollywood tearjerker (a terminally ill courtesan named Violetta enters an ill-fated love affair with a young gentleman named Alfredo, played here by tenor Matthew Polenzani). In this modern-dress production Violetta wears a short red dress and high heels, and is surrounded by a flock of men in black suits as well as a giant, ever-present clock.

Poplavskaya isn't worried about any traditionalist backlash to the new staging, which replaces a lavish Franco Zeffirelli spectacle from 1998. “It doesn’t matter what dress they put you in,” she says, characteristically matter of fact. “They could put you in a swimming suit but the emotions are what’s important. If you deliver the emotions anything will work."

Poplavskaya’s ascent at the Met has been swift. Originally assigned to the second cast in Prokofiev’s War and Peace in December 2007, she was promoted and made her house debut as Natasha. The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini described her singing as “rich and affecting, with cool, earthy colorings.” Last season she made another favorable impression, as Liu in Puccini’s Turandot.

The New Yorker profile portrayed the Moscow-born Poplavskaya as a headstrong and occasionally volatile figure, at one moment causing a scene in a hotel lobby and another, hopping on a motorcycle from a 9 am audition in London to catch a plane to Moscow for a rehearsal later that same day (she says the motorcycle was arranged by a friend).

But the article also reveals a scholarly side, as she spends long plane rides studying scores and reading the histories of great composers. For a stretch this month she was performing Don Carlo at night and rehearsing La Traviata the next morning. She says she's prepared to invest all she can in Violetta, an iconic heroine and potentially career-defining role.

“It’s a different attitude and a different temperature between the two characters,” she said of Elisabetta and Violetta. “The love is the same for the two women and the desperation the same. But the way to express the colors is a huge difference. Now, with the help of my colleagues, I’m arriving at that boiling point. I’m going to pull out all the stops and I’m going to go for it.”