In the Met's Traviata Revival, the Lady Vanishes

Saturday, April 07, 2012 - 11:09 AM

Willy Decker's bold, modern-dress production of Verdi's La traviata returned to the Metropolitan Opera Friday night, a staging that divided audiences when it premiered at the house on New Year's Eve 2010. For this performance, a last-minute casting change helped to bring out new subtexts in the story.

Decker's production was renowned for its 2005 Salzburg premiere, which featured Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazón and Thomas Hampson all performing at the top of their games. Its Met debut -- complete with stark white set, symbolic ticking clock and sparseness -- served as a jarring contrast to the Zeffirellian opulence that accompanied the opera’s last two runs with the company.

Save for the party scene in Act II, which is solidly conceptualized as a fever dream for the heartbroken Alfredo, Violetta is onstage at all times, privy to all that happens around her and aware of the trajectory of the opera as early as the prologue. Almost as omnipresent is the normally sidelined character of Doctor Grenvil, reminding Violetta constantly yet subtly of her mortality.

In fact, the tragedy here isn’t Violetta’s, but rather Alfredo’s. And, just as Abbé Prévost layers the narrations in his Manon Lescaut -- currently playing at the Met in Massenet's operatic version -- so too here do we see similar artful storytelling at work with Alfredo’s story coming to us via the omniscient narrator of the doctor. Violetta isn’t transformed by her love for Alfredo but rather the opposite. It’s easy to believe here that Alfredo starts as a naïve outsider to the glittering society of Paris and is transformed (most likely losing his virginity to Violetta) as an ardent lover. Upon losing her, he suffers a petulant breakdown mitigated by the grief of impending death and loss. Decker solidifies this vision with unusual but convincing touches, such as Alfredo’s re-entrance in “Sempre Libera,” causing the refrain of Violetta’s anthem to living freely and for pleasure being sung to him as a cautionary monologue rather than an affirming soliloquy.  

With such a vision, it’s somewhat fitting that last night’s Violetta shrank from the spotlight. Filling in at the last minute for an ailing Natalie Dessay, soprano Hei-Kyung Hong had a pretty, pleasing tone and a glittering youth-like quality that belied her age. However, the 52-year-old soprano has also taken on some caution in her vocal performances, which often left her inaudible (indeed, there were times in the first act in which the backstage crew’s conversations carried more audibility than her singing). Some of her high notes didn’t RSVP to the party and in her first notes she struggled to keep pace with the orchestra; you occasionally wondered if this was the best the Met had on hand for the role.  

She did, however, blossom towards the end with a finale in Act II and an Act III winningly spun and wholly affecting. Still, with such a production that leaves its singers naked, having presence and charisma is not optional. Hong would have fared more commendably ensconced in Zeffirelli’s fainting couches, velvets and silks. Reliable, she is. Revitalizing, she is not.

No matter, as the evening belonged to Matthew Polenzani, who started off strong with a faultless “Brindisi” that set the tone for one of the tenor’s finest performances at the Met. Polenzani capitalizes on his less-than-prepossessing stage presence, capturing Alfredo’s outsider status as a young romantic uncomfortably navigating the world of high society -- a putz in paradise.

It makes his outbursts of emotion more affecting and his ultimate downfall more poignant. He perhaps becomes a little too brash, too unbridled in the second act, but with a higher climb comes a higher fall as he is left by Violetta. He throws himself into a rage that is only somewhat quelled by one over-the-top slap from baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as his father, Germont.

The result is one of the most beautifully acted moments at the Met this season, with Polenzani knocked to the ground and scrambling to get away from his father, while Hvorostovsky reels from his own outburst. These are two men who are as equally bound by social mores as the women in their lives, grappling with that stagnancy and making their own sacrifices. Hvorostovsky supplies his own rage in Act III at this setback, cloaked under a layer of cool disdain that supplies a persuasive “Di Provenza.” While Hvorostovsky lacks fatherly warmth, he makes up for that with a gravitas that can’t help but stop you cold.

With a cohesion among principles (commendable in any situation but especially so with the casting change), the largest disconnect seemed to come from the pit. Fabio Luisi is normally at his best in the Italian rep, but struggled to keep singers and orchestra on the same page and fought even harder to keep the horns in tune. Perhaps they had the wrong Jewish holiday in mind last night: the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not on Passover.

Photo, above right: Matthew Polenzani (top) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (bottom). Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera


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Comments [9]

Let me say that I used to have a reasonably long list of operas whose Met productions I so enjoyed, that I would go time and time again to hear different voices in the felicitous settings so designed to present an opera's spectacle, drama and authenticity around some momentous story. Sometimes opera stories are historical, personal or fantastical. BUT, since Mr. Gelb's administration and the introduction and dominance of vulgar, simplistic, ill-conceived, heavy handed or shallow, "symbolistic" and misleading productions-- which mainly seek to sensationalize and overly sexualize everything or "high" design or "rethink" or relocate (definitely not "update" which indicates a possible improvement) an opera to death, I now have a much longer list of operas THAT I WILL NEVER GO SEE AGAIN at the Met no matter who is singing.
Not until there is a reasonable production serving the composer and the story rather than branding and burdening an opera with some idiotic "high" concepts, novice and ill-conceived interpretations or historically inaccurate (or just plain historically ignorant and ill informed), not to mention idiosyncratic obsessions, sensationalistic distractions and often just plain dumb, kindergarden ideas tacked on to the great music and singing. Projections and electronics are never a substitute for scenery, no more than they are a substitute for acting or singing.
Some of this is because Mr. Gelb is substituting his own lack of good dramatic taste and will not listen to others who are objecting, but some of it is because he is selecting literally novice and ignorant directors and designers (some have never designed or even heard opera before!!!), and finally it is because all productions at the Met these days are conceived, designed and directed for making the profitable HD films that Mr. Gelb is so good at. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Broadcasts should echo and capture what is on the stage, not use the stage simply to film with 18 cameras and make an impressive film. Good films can be and have been made of ridiculous, ugly and incoherent stage productions.

Mar. 09 2013 04:30 PM

From the outside you would think everything is splendid at the Met, but in fact, ticket sales are DOWN and people, like me, are finally voting with their money. We cannot tolerate the double standard of highest standards for music and singers but no standards at all for directors and designers chosen at Mr. Gelb's whimsy or because they survived European runs (known as Euro-Trash). Also the audiences that such sensationalistic and controversial productions are attracting do not stay around for the long run. No problem here with new productions, new ideas and new operas, but they must use spectacle, drama and authenticity to serve the opera's story not the directors' and designers' peculiar obsessions. It is the wrong goal to set out to create something absurd, different or shocking if that goal overrides or simply uses the opera's own story as an excuse.
Oddly, many of these same people used to criticize the opulent, lush and huge Zeffirelli productions as too big, too busy, too distracting, tiresome! But what has been substituted for Zeffirelli's seemingly boundless service of the spectacle, drama and authenticity of the opera's story are mostly total distractions and reinterpretations often having little to do with serving or telling the composer's story or even allowing the story to be understood. As Marilyn Horne herself said "When you have to wonder why something is on stage, something is definitely wrong." And Terrance McNally heartily agreed. I think Beverly Sills, who helped bring Mr. Gelb in based on his corporate talents, must be spinning in her grave! If opera is to live and find new long term audiences, standards and quality must not be dumbed down as we have seen the last few years.

Mar. 09 2013 04:28 PM
Gaston Musella from Brooklyn, NY

Out with the old and in with the new. With the return of La Traviata via Francis Bacon, we have a whole new show. To be clear, Francis Bacon did not design this production, but he might have for his sensibility is definitely a major influence on what we see in this production. On a bare stage is a dramatically curved horizon line reflected in an equally dramatic ceiling line, culled directly from Bacon’s catalogue. This semi-surreal landscape never changes. Occasionally, an ice cube couch covered in chintzy camellia fabric allows the players a respite from lying on the floor. This couch multiplies itself for the revelers but provides no comfort to the participants. Equally disturbing is a white floor that creates a blizzard of stage-blindness making it nearly impossible for the audience to read the supertitles. This claustrophobic set reduces the landscape to an arctic void, but one not fit for humans. Despite the leanness of the production, it is difficult to focus on the action.
At the onset, Violetta graces the stage and slumps toward her death, the clock at the end of the line. The crowds of men that embrace her are uniformly dressed, homogenized men, faceless, violent and disturbing. These are mean men, cavorting as if in a strip club, occasionally wearing masks to heighten the horror. All the female parts have been removed from the production except Violetta. As the crowd carries her on her pedestal of ice, Violetta throws her skirt up so often that she seems more nymphomaniac than courtesan. The amount of skin shown is not pornographic but definitely meat oriented. Like the giant clock that ticks through the show, her bright red dress demonstrates a long slow bleed.
This was once a love story, but no more. This show is about meat, the meat of skin and hardcore sex, the meat of money and the meat of death. There is neither tenderness nor delicacy in the entire production. Is this our age?
When she is visited by Germont in a set of piles of fabric and empty couches, Violetta reminds him that she is a lady, but she is barefoot in a white nightgown, hardly what the text implies. This is a scene of hopelessness and helplessness.
Later on, Alfredo in boxer shorts looks insipid and uninspiring, when he should be charming and romantic. There is trash on stage and it isn’t very pretty, but maybe that is the point. Visually, it’s brutal. Visually, it’s Francis Bacon.
Remarks of Verdi indicate the production should always be current and timely. The backlash against the lush, expensive and sometimes elephantine productions of Franco Zefferelli has almost succeeded in having all his productions removed. But does this contemporary production match the music? At the end of the opera, there is no sadness felt when Violetta dies. Is that how it should be? I would like to think that even in our jaded age, we should still feel some sympathy for a dying heroine, but maybe I’m too old fashioned.

Apr. 17 2012 08:03 AM

CBC Hope u had a good Easter. I can't believe it but we agree about Trav. The one thing which really gets me is "Di Provenza". All those repeats. Mamma mia! I really tried to like this one but non posso. Now Rigoletto & Trovatore - that's drama & it takes 1st class singers. Take care Beduzza. I've been preparing for Walkure & Siegfried.

Apr. 10 2012 04:01 PM
Morgan from ny

I think Peter Gelb should just FORGET ABOUT ANY PRODUCTION from SALZBURG... and all the "modern/minimalist"... productions for that matter.. to have Violetta roaming around the stage in a little Red dress... is unacceptable... Yes change is good but if Mr. Gelb thinks that he'll be attracting new audiences with this type of productions.. well.. I dont' think so.. because they have OTHER venues to see such productions like "Annie" in her litle red dress !!! And Gelb seems to think that "sex sells".... sorry.. not in opera .... people see sex everyday on their TV screens, and in movie theaters.. and in opera we can keep it a bit on a higher level and leave it to the audience to "figure" what happens.. without as in TOSCA.. having a girl with her nose in Scarpia's pants... and the divas wearing dresses that look like at any moment, their breast will come out... and in Manon.... she didn't have to pull open "Abbe De Grieux's" garment !!! Leave it to us to "imagine" certain things...
Mr. Gelb controls the production and can very well "interfere" when the producers come up with the "crazy ideas" that we've been seeing lately...
Don't drive away your loyal audience Mr. Gelb...

Apr. 10 2012 01:48 PM
Marta Baez from New York

I saw the current production of Traviata the night it opened. I found the production offensive, vulgar and overall in bad taste. I was one of the persons who booed the producers, set designers and directors.

In addition, since it is a minimalist type of set it is boring to the eye. In fact, the couple sitting next to me had never been to the opera and had been told by friends that it was a beautiful production and they were sadly disappointed and bored. They left at the end of the first act. Unfortunately, because I was meeting friends at another event which started at 11 pm, I had to suffer through the entire horror. Put that production where it belongs...IN THE GARBAGE!!!

Apr. 09 2012 11:16 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

This opera should be retired for a few years. Poor heart of gold. Hackneyed melodies with the damn dancing gypsies. Only part of the opera with some drive is the card scene and the following exchange between Alfred and Violetta. And the Sempre Libera aria with screaming in Italian should be written out of the score. My cat Siegfried always runs to hide when he hears this bloody awful aria. Always felt sorry for the baritone who had to sing the part of Papa Germont. My father would say that Il piu fesso baritone could sing the part. Translates to the stupidest baritone could sing the part.

Apr. 09 2012 07:23 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Two opera aficionados, one a writer and the other a non-jaded opera lover, both have written two distinct observations of the performance of La Traviata last night at the Met on this blog.. TSCHAIKOVSKY after hearing rave super-complimentary comments on Wagner's RING, attended performances of the RING at the Bayreuth, Germany Festspielhaus, Afterward he declared "there is no melody." We Wagnerians and those whose acquaintance with Wagner's music is only minimal, may disagree upon whether they like the music, but few indeed would proclaim a lack of melody. La Traviata, from its failure on its world premiere, more than a little bit due to the fact that the Violetta WAS FAT, hardly believable as a consumptive, has as many flip flops as Presidential candidates. Some dealt with era, time, some with the gaudiness or its lack and some missed the boat entirely to be almost totally out of sync with Verdi's masterpiece. Thank our lucky stars that even when the sets, the direction and the costumes fail the composer's intentions, the SINGERS SAVE THE DAY ! I am an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare," a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. At my website,, one may download at "Recorded Selections," free, 37 complete selections from the over one hundred I have sung in four three hour long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall. They are all LIVE performances. On Saturday June 9th, I will sing a program of 28 selections, BRING HIM HOME, that will deal with the love of country, the desire to return our valia.nt military to their families, and songs celebrating hope and pride, at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel, at 6 PM.

Apr. 08 2012 09:51 PM
Paul Onkel from NYC

I was at the dress and the opening night of Traviata. I must disagree with Ms Giovetti's tepid appreciations, such as they are, of Ms Hong. It is true that her voice seems to have got smaller than when I heard her last (either in '05 or '07 as the Figaro Countess). But what Hong gave us with what she had was musically exquisite. Just the defiance, deep sorrow and self-pity of her "Sto meglio" in Act One has stayed with me, along with many other of her phrases. I was both times seated in the rear of the Orchestra and did not hear the stagehands as Ms Giovetti did, but if their voices carried into the house, surely the matter is one for the Stage Manager to discipline and not a blot on Ms Hong's capacities. In light of the extreme physical demands the Decker production puts on the singers and assuming that Ms Hong did not have much in the way of rehearsal, her beautiful assumption deserves more than the back of anyone's hand. I would rather hear a superbly refined and vocally smaller scale Violetta than one of the shrieking megaphones the Met occasionally puts on its stage and describes as a soprano. Ms Hong's work may not have revitalized Ms. Giovetti, but it did me, and I am grateful for it and Ms. Hong's continued presence on the New York stage.

Apr. 08 2012 11:10 AM

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