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Met’s ‘Traviata’ in HD LiveBY: Steve Cohen 04.28.2012
Willi Decker’s radical production isn’t the only way to do Verdi’s La Traviata, but it’s a convincing alternative, especially with the inimitably vulnerable Natalie Dessay in the title role.
La Traviata. Opera by Giuseppe Verdi; Willi Decker directed; Fabio Luisi, conductor. Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, Broadway and 65th St., New York. Cinema encore May 2, 2012. www.metoperafamily.org.
One woman’s race against timeSTEVE COHEN
Violetta, the consumptive courtesan heroine of La Traviata, is a unique creation of Verdi’s: She inhabits a lonely world, shunned by polite society and even, for a while, by her beloved Alfredo. Clearly, Verdi was thinking of his own lover, Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano in the twilight of her career. When they became lovers after the early death of Verdi’s wife, their cohabitation was regarded as scandalous.
Interpreters of the consumptive Violetta run the gamut from larger-than-life (Joan Sutherland) to fragile (Maria Callas). Somewhere in the middle lies the intense interpretation of Toscanini’s favorite, Licia Albanese. In this continuum, Dessay belongs in Callas’s company. Sutherland was convincing in her own way, but surely Verdi must have imagined a heroine more like Callas or Natalie Dessay.
Some critics have complained that Dessay lacks a large voice and that at 46 she lacks some of the brilliant sparkle of her youth. But with her gaunt face, slender figure and thinnish voice, Dessay seemed just right as a desperate party girl for whom the party is almost over.
In the telecast version of Willi Decker’s radical new Met production, Dessay briefly cracked on a climactic note in “Sempra libera.” But she recovered and took the optional high E-flat ending to the aria. Throughout the performance, she sang with intimacy and pathos, creating a touching character.
Dessay’s “Ah fors e lui” was more pensive than most renditions. When she sang the title line, she neatly segmented it in a breathless fashion. As she attempted to defy death, almost hysterical with ascending coloratura scales, Dessay presented an understated, internalized interpretation that benefits from close-up videography.
Violetta’s race against time, and against death, was vividly rendered by the presence of a giant clock. And Dr. Grenville, ordinarily a minor role, hovered over the action, reminding us how seriously ill Violetta is. The clock causes us to notice, more than in the past, the musical ticking of time during the opera’s overture.
Matthew Polenzani gave an ardent interpretation of Alfredo. His aria was intimately conversational, but stretches of it were under pitch, and his voice wasn’t placed properly in the mask. It seemed as if his attempt at understatement caused his voice to lose some of its ping. This problem was borne out when he sang the aria’s cabaletta full-voice, on pitch and with a nice ring.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont was sensational, his voice sensuous and exciting. His phrasing was superb, with meaningful linkage of lines and a wide range of color. He was equally appealing at full voice and when he reduced his volume to a whisper.
Such great singing made me thankful that this production included Germont’s usually cut cabaletta to ”Di provenza il mar,” including both of the verses that Verdi wrote for it. Hvorostovsky looked appropriately dignified too; his prematurely white hair helped convince us that he was Alfredo’s father.
More than in any previous production, this version of La Traviata focuses on Violetta by herself. The other players recede to become supporting actors. The color scheme emphasizes this notion, with Violetta sometimes clad in red and everyone else in black. Most vividly, everyone retreats toward the wings when Violetta is about to die, which she does alone.
All of the production’s best qualities are emphasized in this video transmission. I use the present tense, because this version will remain ever young through TV and videodisc.♦
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