Verdi, La Traviata. Met, 4/18/2012. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Natalie Dessay (Violetta), Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Gérmont).Since I was away last season, this was my first time seeing the production live, though I knew it from the famous Netrebko/Villazón Salzburg DVD. I like it very much and I can’t help but cheer to see Met people lined up around the block to see a production where a man in a dress and a mask suggestively rubs the minute hand of a giant clock, you know? It warms my heart. Also, it is just a really, really good staging.
Decker’s is a stylized, bleakly unsentimental interpretation, pared-down and extreme. It’s the opposite of the old Zeffirelli production, whose heavy upholstery tended to dampen any excessive displays of emotion and absorb even the most charismatic of singers. Here, Violetta is starkly isolated, her red dress the sole splotch of color among the anonymous hoards of men who pursue her. Maybe the giant clock counting down Violetta’s days and the hovering figure of Dr. Grenvil (AKA Death) aren’t subtle, but the imagery is striking and beautiful. (I’m not going to summarize it in any more detail because its virtues are, by this point, well known.) The staging requires real presence in this title role, and yet rewards a star Violetta in a way that Zeffirelli’s production never did.
Her acting was similar in tone, a damaged Violetta only barely making it through rather than the physically weak but psychically joyous interpretation Netrebko brought to this production. Netrebko’s voice spoke to Violetta’s strength of spirit, Dessay’s voice speaks to the decay of her body.
Maybe this is appropriate for Violetta. It’s a special and poignant kind of pathos when the failings of the singer become the failings of the character. (Begin theoretical digression:) Regular readers of Critical Inquiry may remember Carolyn Abbate’s article on analyzing opera in performance that used a similar incident as an example of a highly charged performative moment, namely the cracktacular Ben Heppner’s struggles to get through the Prize Song. His heroism to stand up in front of an audience while his vocal apparatus repeatedly failed him, according to this argument, sort of put the Helden- in Heldentenor.* Traviata is a little different: Violetta’s frailty and Dessay’s own weakness are complementary while Walther isn’t supposed to be struggling. But I don’t buy this argument. Poor Heps’s first few cracks might have been something special, but if they kept coming eventually a crack is just a crack, not a transformative performative act. An opera can have these moments, but it also has a narrative arc that extends through the evening. (End theoretical digression.) And a Violetta whose sole affect is fragility is too one-sided an interpretation to convince me. It’s a rich, complex character, and I found Dessay not varied enough.
Despite this less than completely convincing assumption of the title role, I’m still very glad I finally got to see this first-class production. Somehow I doubt the Met will ever be able to originate a production of a warhorse opera that is this of this quality, but I’m glad that it made it to New York eventually.
La traviata continues through May 2.
*Yes, this is the same article I cited in both my Spring for Music entries. It’s going to be for me what Seamus is to Gail Collins.