German Regietheater made another inroad (after Luc Bondy's poorly-received Tosca) into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera's with its new production of La Traviata. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account.
* Notes *
Few Met opera-goers will mourn the passing of Franco Zeffirelli's visually overloaded production of Traviata, in which it was almost impossible to discern the principal singers on a stage riotously overpopulated with supernumeraries and overburdened with layers of flamboyant set design. German director Willy Decker's mounting of one of Verdi's most popular operas is the polar opposite of Zeffirelli's visual pandemonium. All three acts of the opera take place within a glaring white semi-circle, replacing Zeffirelli's over the top realism with abstract, "concept"-laden sterility. As is common with this sort of thing, the Director writes pages of explanatory program notes (filled with tautological, tortured sentences such as: "La Traviata is a piece about death – and paradoxically, or maybe inevitably, it is equally a piece about the almost overwhelming force of life, which drives every living thing toward death...") in an attempt to win over the otherwise bored or baffled audience member.
Well before curtain time, a hoary "Father Time" figure, a sort of Dr. Death, is seated before a giant clock, which dominates the stage throughout the evening. As the Overture begins, Violetta makes her entrance in a scarlet strapless party dress and drifts about the stage, occasionally moving pleadingly toward "Dr. Death" as she attempts to grasp and stop the motion of the hands of the clock. An ungenerous critic might ask: Was a metaphor ever more belabored or more obvious?
The courtesans and haute-bourgeois party-goers were dressed, both men and women, in black tuxedos, menacing Violetta and Alfredo. The hospital white, semi-circular set created odd acoustic distortions of the singing and the largely purposeless stage direction left the principals to wander about the stage or required them to perform writhing physical contortions on the floor or on one of the couches which appeared like an obstacle course. In fairness, it must be mentioned that the confrontation between Alfredo and his father, culminating in Germont striking his son and then holding him, weeping, in his arms, was effective and moving. As Violetta surges toward death in her final scene, a floral patterned sky turns blood red – giving the impression of tubercular microbes seen under a microscope – creating a chilling, spine-tingling effect.
Marina Poplavskaya's Violetta was uneven, ranging from an explosive "Sempre Libera," with muddy coloratura and a strident top, to a meltingly beautiful rendition of the third Act "Addio del Passato." It does not matter at all if Violetta does not interpolate a high E-flat at the end of "Sempre Libera," but it does matter if what comes before is so disappointing. A visually striking woman, she was forced to writhe, crawl, meander and ghost-walk through the show; which was choreographically impressive, but surely not vocally helpful. Possessed of an impressively beautiful voice, one has the sense that the soprano consistently overloads her middle range, which might account for her difficulties in important, climactic moments such as her outburst "Ah, M'ami Alfredo!" in Act II.
As Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani sang with consistent beauty and sensitivity. In particular, his "Parigi, O Cara" was sung with an exquisite gradient of vocal color and emotional expression. His second act rendition of the cabaletta to "De Miei Bollenti Spiriti" was powerful without being forced. Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber cut an impressive figure as Germont, and sang "Di Provenza al Mar" with a fine sense of line despite the aria's cruel tessitura and a slight crack on the high G-flat in the aria's concluding phrase.
There were many instances of poor coordination between the pit and the stage. The second act Gypsy Chorus fell apart completely as a result of an impossibly fast tempo. On the plus side, the orchestra played with marvelous balance and uniformity of sound, especially in the Act One and Third Act preludes.
All in all, an interesting evening for a short run in a B-level German opera house. An enduring production for the Metropolitan Opera? The question is open and surely will provoke lively debate.