Living large and dying beautifully: New cast brings vivid life to Met’s “Traviata”
These days, the motto of wasted youth is YOLO, while in the previous era, it was the more florid “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” The nineteenth century didn’t need such slogans, it had tuberculosis.
The predominant opera of the young and romantically, beautifully, and dead, La Traviata, opened last night at the Metropolitan Opera House in a revival of Willy Decker’s production that first premiered on New Year’s Eve, 2010.
Decker treats the stage simply and intelligently. The look is easy to call stylish but is better described as elegant—the palette is almost entirely white and black, which will work with the fashion sense of any era, and bursts of color like Violetta’s red dress carry dramatic weight and meaning.
Everything takes places on the same tilted stage, backed by a curvilinear wall. This allows a quick segue from Act II to III, although the audience’s energy flagged without a second intermission. The chorus frequently appears at the top of the wall, looking down at the action and the characters.
The curve encourages a constant, natural flow of blocking, but also has surprising acoustic effects, amplifying or damping a singer, depending on their relative angle. This was less a problem than a curiosity, though it did mean one could not fully hear every bit of soprano Marina Rebeka’s singing in the lead role.
She acts and sings Violetta superbly. The beauty and technical polish of her voice is expected, and she also has the qualities that Verdi’s music demands—she can modulate dynamics, tone quality, and emotion with agility, and spits out words with fire, when called for.
She was full of life and charisma on stage. The crowd of partygoers, all dressed in black, swarm around her in Acts I and II, and her magnetism is such that she seems to dwarf the mass of people, shining out from their homogeneity. Her acting is unforced, and more essentially she sings the character in every way, from alluring flirtatiousness, through expressive conflicting emotions in “Ah fors’é lui,” to exquisite purity in the finale of “Ah, Violetta!” and “Prendi, quest’e l’immagine.” Rebeka’s artistic conception was to constantly move towards an ultimate simplicity, paring everything down until she reached the characters’ soul with her final breath. This was a deeply impressive performance.
There was a parallel metaphor in the staging, which used minimal means to maximal effect. Doctor Grenvil—bass James Courtney—sits on the stage before the overture begins, and shadows Violetta throughout, even though the character doesn’t speak until the final act. He is more specter then Doctor.
The stage is dominated by a giant clock, with hands that turn at varying speeds, always moving towards Violetta’s fate. In Act II, when Violetta and Alfredo are enjoying their love together, the clock is shrouded in a lovely, flowered cloth, as is the furniture. Life is red, happiness is flowers. Neither last.
Stephen Costello was slated to sing Alfredo oppening night yet, after a delayed start, the stage manager announced that Costello had fallen ill shortly before the curtain. Tenor Francesco Demuro, already scheduled to play the role when the cast changes on December 30, started his run early.
Demuro knew the part and the staging, but, understandably, took some time to loosen up. His voice and presence seemed small next to Rebeka throughout the first act, but he was more vivid and solid in the second, even as the staging, wittily, has him singing about his dignity while standing in his boxer shorts.
It was Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, played by baritone Quinn Kelsey, who was the equal of Rebeka. He sang with powerful masculinity and worldliness, with great weight and presence. This heightened the drama, as the respect between Giorgio and Violetta, and their machinations, was real. Violetta needs his musical and dramatic presence to play against, much more so than Alfredo, and Kelsey’s complex combination of vanity, morality, calculation, and anguish over her fate made the journey to the finale something one felt, not just watched. Kelsey’s singing of “Di Provenza il mar” was enthralling, the musical high point of the performance.
Decker’s staging was gripping at the end. The transition from Flora’s party (a fine performance from mezzo Maya Lahyani as Flora) to Violetta’s death bed was effected by Violetta’s collapse on the bare, white floor, the furniture gone, the partygoers starting at her silently than backing slowly offstage. It was shockingly stark.
The orchestra, led by Marco Armiliato, sounded less like their usual, brightly shining selves and more like a Verdi orchestra, with a grainy, rustic sound that was most welcome. Armiliato maintained an ideal pace, and was quickly and sympathetically responsive to the singers. Decker’s daring Traviata is perhaps the most successful of the Met’s attempts to freshen up standard repertoire, and should rightfully last for many years to come.
La Traviata continues through January 24, with Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta and Ludovic Tézier as Giorgrio Germont, starting January 14. metopera.org