Yoncheva a blazing Violetta in Met’s highly charged “Traviata”

Thu Mar 02, 2017 at 1:03 pm
Sonya Yoncheva and Micahel Fabiano in Veri's "La Traviata" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata, which first came to the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, is the sort that gives ample room to its title character. A spare staging that hinges on just a handful of starkly symbolic gestures—a couch, a clock, a bathrobe—it offers a vast space for a lead soprano to fill.

In the current run of Verdi’s classic tragedy at the Met, Sonya Yoncheva has no trouble filling that space. Her interpretation of the meteoric heroine has earned every ounce of the praise that has been heaped on it.

From the beginning, her Violetta is a ferocious force, driven by the knowledge of her impending death to live as fast a life as she can, even if it only hastens her demise. The sudden entrance of Alfredo into her life grounds her momentarily, just as their separation puts her back on her downward spiral. In following the turbulent arc of Violetta, Yoncheva brings a vivid, breathing character to the stage—few are the sopranos who can bring a listener to tears simply by reading a letter aloud.

Few, too, are the sopranos who command so powerfully rich a voice and can tie a vocal interpretation so closely together with a dramatic one. In Wednesday night’s performance there was an electric thrill in her sound, making her spirited “Sempre libera” feel like a manifesto. She lost nothing when turning down her intensity, giving a breathtaking account of “Addio, bel passato,” her melancholy resignation heartbreaking. La Traviata is often cited as an opera that pushes the boundaries of suspended disbelief, teased for having a young woman sing fortissimo as she succumbs to tuberculosis. In Yoncheva’s riveting final moments, one heard a woman fighting fiercely to stay alive, only to collapse at last, exhausted, as though she’d sung herself to death.

Michael Fabiano’s portrayal of Alfredo Germont was a little unusual. More brawny than brilliant, his tenor is on the far dark side of the role, powering through in his middle voice and—in Wednesday’s performance, at least—spreading considerably on anything above a G. Rather than the passion of a youth in love for the first time, there was a compulsive drive about him that matched Yoncheva’s worldly determination and grew disturbing as his obsession turned violent. Unable to flash clear high notes, he was most compelling in his duets with her, particularly the poignant “Parigi, o cara” in his final moments together with his beloved Violetta.

Thomas Hampson was too ill to go on Wednesday as Germont père, opening the door for his cover, Nelson Martínez, to become the surprise star of the evening, sporting a cavernous, mahogany voice of generous size and wooly texture. He was a little stiff when he first entered, projecting almost too much authority, yet this made his transition to humility only more effective, as he melted into the tender “Pura, siccome un angelo” and the sighing aria “Di Provenza il mar,” in which he pleads with Alfredo to come home.

Nicola Luisotti’s direction from the pit was neither especially polished nor especially adventurous. He often sounded a step or two out of sync with the leads, and largely took stiff, conventional tempos. Where he succeeded was in creating texture, drawing a luminous sound out of the orchestra and capturing the character of the score even when a little out of sorts. The Met Opera chorus, called on significantly in this opera, acquitted itself admirably, singing with glowing beauty while still managing to make itself the imposing presence called for in Decker’s austere vision.

Though not the largest of the supporting roles in the score, Doctor Grenvil in this production is a major presence, ever looming in his black trench as a memento mori. The kindly warmth of James Courtney’s voice only emphasized the contradiction in the doubling, bringing the soothing spectre of “Death and the Maiden” instantly to mind. Jane Bunnell sounded a little worn as Violetta’s attendant Annina, but brought matronly care to the role.

Rebecca Jo Loeb’s mezzo sparkled darkly as the Parisian socialite Flora while Jeff Mattsey’s brassy baritone rang in the role of D’Obigny. Scott Scully sang with a reedy tenor as the obsequious Vicomte Gastone and Dwayne Croft showed off a full, woody bass as Baron Douphol, Alfredo’s momentary rival.

As brilliant as this performance was on its own terms, it was also a testament to the enduring power of Verdi’s work, packing astonishing emotional power into a mere two-and-a-half hours—barely a minute, in operatic terms. Next Tuesday’s performance of La Traviata will be the one thousandth in the history of the company. Here’s to a thousand more.

La Traviata runs through April 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. Carmen Giannatasio assumes the role of Violetta beginning March 22, and Atalla Ayan appears as Alfredo beginning March 29. George Petean appears as Giorgio Germont beginning March 29, with Plácido Domingo assuming the role from April 8. The matinee performance on Saturday, March 11 will be broadcast live in HD. metopera.org

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