lietofinelondon

La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Verdi on April 16, 2012 at 8:40 am

Review – The Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast (Saturday 14 April)

Violetta Valéry – Natalie Dessay
Alfredo Germont – Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont – Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Flora Bervoix – Patricia Risley
Annina – Maria Zifchak

Production – Willy Decker
Set & Costume Designer – Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer – Hans Toelstede
Choreographer – Athol Farmer

New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus
New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor- Fabio Luisi

According to Deborah Voigt I am one of millions who has experienced live performances from The Met via live HD simulcasts. My first was the final instalment of LePage’s Ring cycle Götterdämmerung, and while the production itself remains as flawed as it was for his Die Walküre, I couldn’t fault the high production values of the broadcast itself.

So with that in mind it wasn’t a hard decision to book a seat for Willy Decker’s production of La Traviata. Not only to see what all the original fuss was about when this pared down production debuted in Salzburg in 2005, but also to hear Natalie Dessay essay her Violetta.

And this was also my second Verdi production at The Met. My first was Il Trovatore during my visit to see Die Walküre live. It was not a good experience and at the time I did wonder if Peter Gelb and his management team allowed the lure of high box office returns overwhelm their good sense in casting the opera. The principals were poor and the conducting even worse. The evening was only salvaged by David McVicar’s production.

So after this production of La Traviata I found myself asking the same question. Had Gelb and his Finance Director fallen into the honey trap offered by Ms Dessay? She first sang the role at Santa Fé in 2009 but three years later in a bigger house I wonder if I was the only person left disappointed?

Do not misunderstand me. I am an admirer of Natalie Dessay in Handel, Mozart, the bel canto composers and even the CD of Strauss excerpts alongside Felicity Lott, Angelika Kirchschlager, Sophie Koch, Thomas Allen under Antonio Pappano and the players of Covent Garden.

But Verdi’s La Traviata is an unforgiving opera. Not only is the story harsh and brutal, but the music he wrote literally takes no prisoners and is similarly brutal as it exposes those who tackle it. Fortunately the sublime beauty of Verdi’s music is that even when the singing is mediocre his genius shines through. And this was very much the case in The Met’s production.

As an actress she was – at times – painfully convincing but for me her performance in the title role exposed her vocal vulnerabilities mercilessly. While Ms Dessay sang all the notes – and who really cares that she didn’t sing the top ‘e’ at the end of the first act – there was something that remained just out of her grasp throughout the evening. Quite simply she lacked a richness of tone and heft for the music that Verdi wrote for his consumptive courtesan. Her voice remained flat and one dimensional throughout and added to this it seemed that for significant parts of the opera she was either in front of or behind the beat coming from the pit.

In short, Natalie Dessay’s Violetta was as colourless and pale as we would presume to be the pallor of her skin due to her prognosis.

And while son and father, Alfredo and Giorgio – Matthew Polenzani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky – fared better in delivering heft, what they made up in volume they lacked in subtlety. Polenzani has a rich timbred voice and is a good actor but there was little finesse or delicacy in his singing when it was required. As for Hvorostovsky it seems that his volume button is forever jammed on ‘loud’ and finesse is simply out of the question. What should have been a seminal series of scenes in the second act simply reminded me of shouting matches in my own Italian family’s household in moments of crisis. Except my parents really could act.

Indeed the most refreshing performances of the evening were the brightly projected roles of Maria Zifchak as Annina and the Flora Bervoix of Patricia Risley.

And in the pit was Fabio Luisi. In my last blog regarding the Met it was pointed out to me that Maestro Luisi was conducting Wagner like Verdi. I am afraid to say that in La Traviata his conducting was less Verdi and as lacklustre as the vast majority of performances on the stage. Admittedly it might be a problem of hearing the orchestra once-removed via satellite but – giving modern digital technology the benefit of the doubt – Luisi seemed to be conducting by rote with a distinct lack of bite being coaxed from the orchestra. Clearly Luisi is a virtual shoo-in to replace Levine at some point in the future. It would be a shame if this happenstance was merely the result of being in the right room at the right time rather than on account of his ability.

Elsewhere on the stage the chorus was impressive. The ensemble singing was for the most part strong but all credit to choreographer Athol Farmer for marshalling them so effectively and tapping into a real sense of menace especially in the second act.

And that sense of menace and brutality was at the core of Willy Decker’s production. It takes a brave and talented theatre director to take a well-loved opera and pare it back. And pare it back Decker did to literally nothing. And it was incredibly effective and emotive.

The main set was completely empty bar a single clock face and a solitary figure. It wasn’t too hard to deduce this was Violetta’s doctor Grenvill (Luigi Roni) and together with the clock, he was a constant reminder of her impending death. Built into the wall was a bench on which the protagonists either sat or walked along as the drama unfolded. And above the bench was a space where the chorus appeared. At some point towards the end of the first act as the chorus leaned forward from above as voyeurs on Violetta and Alfredo it occurred to me that perhaps Decker had been inspired somewhat by ancient Greek theatre.

The opening of the second act literally bloomed with flowers. The protagonists were robed in floral patterns and the sofas were extravagantly draped in them. But again Decker never let us forget – however subtly – the transience of the relationship and Violetta’s own life. The poignancy for example of their innocent game of hide and seek or how Violetta herself pulled off the covers, literally stripping bare the veneer of her own life before she is forced to abandon her life of happiness in the country.

However it was Decker’s reinterpretation of the Spanish divertissement that was a master stoke that underlined the brutality and violence of their world. Dispensing with the normally expected flamenco dancers and matadors, in Decker’s mind the divertissement became a malicious and cruel critique of Violetta’s life.

Even Decker’s resolution of moving without break from the second to final act was inspired, with the chorus – Violetta’s former party people – leaving her to her demise only to return later to reclaim the clock face for their ‘new’ Violetta who is even dressed in the dying courtesan’s red dress.

It was only in the closing scenes – and more as a result of her acting skills than her vocal ability – that Dessay almost convinced me that she was an almost credible Violetta even if she remained vocally bland to the end.

So while not the most disappointing La Traviata I have ever seen, this production – where the director has stripped away all artifice – requires singing and conducting of the highest standard for all the elements to fuse together effectively.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. This could have marred the entire evening had it not been for Decker’s single-minded production and – as stated above – the fact that the genius and beauty of Verdi’s music can overcome even the most mediocre singing.

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  1. […] Review of the HD performance from Lietofinelondon ( blog ) […]

  2. […] This is an interesting remark from a company that once heavily courted Sky for sponsorship as well as is committed to attracting new and young audiences to their productions. I can’t work out if it is because the internal factions in the Company make it impossible for Berry to consider this as a viable option or whether it is just sour grapes that Covent Garden – and other theatres – have made such a success of it. Looking at the success of The Met’s own HD cinema broadcasts, it seems strange that Berry should condemn one of his long-term bed fellows Peter Gelb. […]

  3. […] Reading 1. La Traviata – The Beauty & Brutality 2. A ‘LuSch’ FroSch in Clever Vienna 3. Wagner Finds His Northern […]

  4. […] that a director has pared this opera back to a minimalist setting. I am thinking of the Met’s recent production for example. But here – despite the size of the Coliseum’s stage – it seems starker and more […]

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