The Met’s ‘La Traviata’ lean on glamour, rich in insight
Beyond the austere set and surreal visuals, Willy Decker’s controversial 2010 Met production probes deeply into the heroine’s psyche
Willy Decker’s now five-year-old Met production of La Traviata, like the bottles of champagne uncorked during the bubbly Libiamo, appears to improve with age.
When I got my first taste of this lean but insightful production at the April 14, 2012 Live from the Met simulcast (a reprise of Decker’s original 2010 Met production), I was largely disappointed. I was not alone. Those still enamored with Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant Traviata (1989, revised 1998) were disillusioned by an austere update that abandoned the opulence, glamour and glitz for a bare-bones set with colorless costumes.
The two productions offer different perspectives, to be sure. Zeffirelli offers a visually intoxicating Traviata bubbling over with Dom Pérignon. Decker’s stripped-down version is more Cold Duck than champagne. But for those content with a psychological journey into the heroine’s psyche, couched in an expressionist-surrealistic framework resembling an episode of The Twilight Zone, Decker’s insightful version has something of great value to offer. Salzburg Festival audiences received the production warmly when Decker made his debut there with Traviata in 2005.
My epiphany came when I caught the January 7 reprise. I saw a number of things I had not seen, or at least had missed, at the 2012 simulcast. Certainly, the nuts and bolts of the production remained the same. But this time around I began to see less with the eyes and more with the mind. The Cold Duck tasted mighty good this time around.
Of course, the change of venue from movie theater to opera house goes a long way in explaining this renewed vision. Instead of a steady stream of close-up shots fed to me piecemeal, I saw the drama unfold as a single, all-encompassing panorama. Freed from the myopic lens of the camera work, I began to see the larger vision Decker had intended — with the drama unfolding as a connected series of images strung together like motifs in a Beethoven symphony.
Among the staging effects missing during the simulcast was the light and shadow-driven images projected against the wall at stage left, zooming in and out proportionally to the opening and closing of the door at stage right. Then there’s the ubiquitous presence of the mysterious Dr. Grenvil, whose ghastly presence as The Grim Reaper shadows Violetta at every turn. One of the most striking images is the sight of Violetta’s iconic red dress (a symbol of the courtesan’s “retirement,”) which in Act Two sits on a hanger against the wall like Mickey Mantle’s jersey hanging at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Most of all, I saw more clearly Decker’s vision of the tragic heroine’s impending doom — a fate that in Act Three will rob her of happiness at the very moment she has at last found something of value to live for, as Alfredo returns to her at the end of the opera. Unlike Zeffirelli, whose production celebrates the joie de vivre of courtesan life in Paris, Decker makes us pause to ponder the human cost of such a lifestyle. And to feel the pain.
The story, adapted from the 1852 play La dame aux camélias (Camille) by Alexander Dumas, centers on the ill-fated romance between a fashionable but terminally ill courtesan, Violetta, and the love-struck but naive young gentleman, Alfredo, who risks everything to capture her heart.
Violetta (the Camille of Dumas’s play, from which Francesco Paive’s libretto formed the genesis of Verdi’s La Traviata), leads a colorful and glamorous lifestyle many would like to experience, however empty and shallow the path ultimately leaves them. The courtesan abandons the lavish lifestyle in exchange for “true love,” but the giant clock — the centerpiece of Decker’s set representing the tragic heroine’s immutable fate — ticks on and on, a reminder of the inevitable.
Marina Rebeka, who sang the title role at the Chicago Lyric Opera last January in her company debut there, makes her Met Traviata debut in the current production, alternating with Sonya Yoncheva.
The attractive Latvian soprano has the looks for the part, including an ebullient face that when made up radiates all the glamour we expect to see in a woman so prominently positioned in le Gai Paris society. Yet when the makeup and lipstick go, Rebeka’s unglamorous plain-Jane looks reveal the weak, sickly and vulnerable appearance that unmask her waning strength and resolve. Rebeka quickly gains the sympathy of the listener, drawing them into to her sorrowful world of isolation, emptiness and loneliness.
The richness of Rebeka’s voice is at once apparent in her first-act duet with Demuro during the Libiamo. Her velvety tone in the Sempre libera at times reveals color and depth approaching the thickness of a dramatic soprano, yet Rebeka’s vocal timbre, though darkly hued in its lower register, remains sufficiently flexible to navigate the coloraturas in this flashy showcase aria. And Rebeka still had enough steam at the end to hit (and sustain) an interpolated high E-flat.
Perhaps the single most impressive moment in the production is Rebeka’s persuasive delivery in the lengthy scene with the elder Germont (Quinn Kelsey), as the latter plays upon Violetta’s feelings of guilt and self-doubt to convince her to leave his son Alfredo. When her resolve finally collapses in the touching Ah! Dite all giovine, I could see through my opera glasses a (real) tear streaming from Rebeka’s left eye. Having made the ultimate sacrifice for she man she loves, Violetta embraces Germont and begs for a reciprocal hug acknowledging her agonizing decision, but he only stands at attention, arms stiffly by his side. How sad.
Francesco Demuro, originally scheduled to assume the role of Alfredo on Dec. 30, was thrust into the role a bit prematurely when Stephen Costello withdrew just moments before the Dec. 11 opening.
Demuro delivers a solid dramatic effort as Alfredo — presumably the only man in Paris who sees beyond Violetta’s physical assets. His handsome lyric tenor is pleasant sounding and his phrases connect seamlessly in the low and middle registers, though his voice tended to sound pinched in the upper register when pushing his volume to forte and beyond. Demuro found his full vocal stride in his signature second act aria De’ miei bollenti spiriti and the cabaletta that follows (O mio rimorso), as he sings of his joy in convincing Violetta to experience “real” love.
As Alfredo’s meddlesome father, Giorgio Germont, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey delivered an impressive vocal effort. Verdi makes us wait until Act Two to savor the deep resonance of a male voice in Traviata, but Kelsey — with his firm vocal presence and well-projected baritone — makes the wait worthwhile.
Kelsey’s signature aria, Di Provenza il mar, sung as he tries to console Alfredo and convince him to return home after having been abandoned by Violetta, was sung with just the right balance of wistful nostalgia and firmness of purpose, as he attempts to control all aspects of his son’s life.
Kelsey’s lengthy duet with Rebeka was smoothly delivered and tightly knit in ensemble. (He played Germont in the Chicago Lyric Opera production with Rebeka.) But while he delivers the vocal goods in this production, Kelsey just doesn’t have the commanding physical presence onstage to make a credible bully. I had difficulty buying into the premise that Violetta abandons Alfredo’s love (and her own self respect) at Kelsey’s urging, unlike the 2012 simulcast with Dmitri Hvorostovsky.
An alert Metropolitan Opera Orchestra appeared to give conductor Marco Armiliato all he asked, all the time. The box-like set however creates logistical problems during the crowded scenes with chorus, as the singers cannot maintain consistent eye contact with the conductor. This created situations where the chorus lost Armiliato’s beats, though never for long. Armiliato at times had to wave his arms pedantically to keep things together, with large, sweeping beats that I suspect did more to distract the listeners sitting in the orchestra (I was in row 12) than harness the attention of the singers.
A well choreographed Metropolitan Opera Chorus, men and women both dressed in black, helped capture the expressionistic effects Decker’s production team had been seeking. The chorus sang with spunk in the cheerful Libiamo, and captured the moment in the irresistible Chorus of Gypsies (Noi siamo zingarelle).
As the lights went up in the house at intermission, the gentleman sitting on my left confided “Call me old-fashioned, but I much prefer the Zeffirelli version.” Yet when the production came to an end he was one of the first to take to his feet and cheer.
And that pretty much sums up this Willy Decker strange but thoughtful production: It grows on you. And it gets better with time. Just like those Twilight Zone reruns.
What: Verdi’s La Traviata
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York
Performance reviewed: January 7, 2015
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission
Plays through: January 24, 2015