Friday night at the Metropolitan Opera was the last time that audiences would get a chance to see Willy Decker’s production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The powerful vision that first came to see the light of the world in Salzburg over 10 years ago is in and of itself a long goodbye, an intricate look at how a woman says goodbye to life before she is truly ready. And like its paradoxical heroine, who is often portrayed as jumping between pleading for time and committing self-destructive acts, this production has also split opinions.
Most critics love it. Many audience members, especially at the more conservative Met, despise it. For me, it is a true pity to see it leave for good.
One of the Best Productions In Recent Met History
I will miss the intricate level of detail that Decker manages from an otherwise spare set. From the iconic red dress, which pinpoints Violetta as the central object of the abusive male gaze to the wilting flowers first breathe color and life into her life with Alfredo, and then rob her of it. From the massive clock, the constant reminder of death, to Dr. Grenville, death himself personified. From Alfredo’s nightmare vision at the party, the other men obscenely belittling him to the final baccanale, where Violetta realizes that her true tragic fate is to be forgotten and replaced by another ingénue who will undoubtedly suffer the same fate down the line.
I also love how Decker managed to keep this set alive, not one second is ever wasted, something always happening. More importantly, nothing is ever distracting or unnecessary, every single element in this production works toward creating a cohesive whole. How many productions currently playing at the Met can truly say that?
But I think what I will miss most of all is the range of brilliant interpretations this production managed from some of the world’s greatest sopranos. Despite having them essentially adhere to the most specific of blocking, it also freed them to engage with their own visions of the iconic courtesan, all of them tasked with showing us how they respond to death. At the Met, my personal favorites were Marina Rebeka’s incredible volatile self-destruction and a more subdued Diana Damrau bearing her cross as best and peacefully as she could.
A Great Diva Says Goodbye
To finish it all off was a bitter and desperate, but deeply-layered, portrayal from Carmen Giannattasio in, incidentally, her final interpretation of this opera. The soprano, whose absence on Tuesday due to illness added a wrinkle of last-minute drama for this run, was defeated from the get-go and she hated it. The prelude, with its aching violins, saw her move about, head down, movements slow and wilted. Suddenly at the end, she almost begged for death from Dr. Grenvile before moving toward the towering clock as if submitting. But then the party started and she was forced into a choice. Giannattasio’s struggle became apparent here and while she relented to follow the inquiring men, her actions throughout the party had a nonchalant attitude to them, almost as if she didn’t care about anything or anyone. The brindisi was marked not by flirtation with Alfredo, but mockery of him, her glare putting him down and her voice, ample and potent from the get-go overpowered his with gusto.
During the duet “Un dì felice” Violetta’s response to Alfredo’s romantic advance is often dictated as mockery by Verdi’s music. But apathy came from Giannatassio, the notes thrown off with facility, the peaks of phrase sustained almost to ridicule his expansive vocal legato. But by the end, he seemed to have tapped into her vulnerability, Giannattasio losing herself in Atalla Ayan’s luxurious legato line and the two walking across the stage to meet one another at the center in a rapturous kiss.
That moment proved a turning point as the ensuing “E strano… Ah! Fors’è lui” saw Giannattasio’s Violetta locked in inner turmoil. As noted, her voice was fully fleshed from the get-go eschewing any suggestion that this is a role for three different voices. She sang the open aria with the full potency of her voice, transforming it from a meditative piece into a cry for help, the high notes booming. Throughout the night, the soprano showed a brilliance for using pauses for stark dramatic effect. And here it was all the more effect, the silences almost her waiting for a response to her plea. When none arrived in the aria, she struck back with the venom building from her bitterness. “Follie!” was not her laughing off the idea of falling in love, but an angry reminder of her impending fate. In that vein, every action in the opening stanza of “Sempre libera” was filled with this anger. She threw her shoes off so brutally that one almost fell into the orchestra pit. She hurled the glass wine with such fury that it almost flew up into the upper stage. Her coloratura runs were daggers, the High C sharp throw right at the Doctor, watching her throughout the exchange. The cabaletta itself was filled with aggressive accents that seemed to build into a volcanic eruption that only Alfredo’s “Di quell amor” could quell. The ensuing “Follie” came with greater aggression, but she subsided far quicker the moment Alfredo burst through the door, the reprise sung piano and growing quieter with each phrase, the submission to love delivered with painful foreboding.
And that was just the first act.
Act 2 initiated with a more light-hearted and flirtatious Giannattasio, Violetta using all of her physical weapons to win over her Alfredo. But the mood turned tragic again with the arrival of Germont. Plácido Domingo’s despondent attitude only incited Giannattasio’s own crude reaction, the initiation of their duet marked by brutal vocal spars, each singer’s pointed phrasing creating potent tension. And while Domingo’s voice moved from fractured phrasing to that gleaming legato that has mesmerized for half a century, Giannattasio’s powerful sound filled out with greater pain, her vibrato more intense with each phrase until suddenly it turned into a painful hush during “Ah! Dite alla giovine…” That first “Ah,” an extended transition note was held for quite ample time, Giannattasio marking the first moment of true tragedy for her character. When later she sang her first response in “Parigi o cara” with the same timbre and volume, the dramatic shape and unity of her mature interpretation really hit home in a visceral way – Violetta was losing Alfredo not once, but twice.
The iconic “Amami Alfredo” is impossible to omit from this analysis, Giannattasio throwing caution to the winds and using her full vocal resources to bury the theater with sound over, quite frankly, a booming orchestra that even had the timpani pounding away. It harkened back to Giannattasio’s approach to the double arc in Act 1, the plea for help growing in its intensity and dramatic weight.
A gentle approach in the famed concertato showed her growing weakness, but the bitterness returned in the final scene, Violetta’s battle with death coming to a painful end. As she read the letter from Germont, there was a calm until she reached the word “Curatevi (Cure yourself)” at the end, her voice weeping. The “E tardi,” which many sopranos fired away as a rebuke was instead a lament as she moved toward the rigid Grenvil, his back to her. The “Addio del passato” was expansive, Giannattasio’s harkening back to her approach to the “E fors’è lui” and bringing the entire opera full circle. The final phrases were stretched to their limits, the soprano exploring Violetta clinging to life as much as possible until the final note was a breathtaking pianissimo, an admission of defeat.
As it stood even Alfredo’s return could not save her and her singing in their duet “Parigi o cara” was subdued and delicate next to Ayan’s more impassioned approach. But the final section “Gran Dio” was filled with strength and power, the final stand for the character, her voice flooding the theater with power.
Giannattasio’s full-bodied approach, eschewing cute restraint for passionate commitment to survival, was powerfully resonant and the perfect way for this production to have met its maker.
A Legendary Performance
But let’s not overlook the contributions of Ayan and Domingo to round out what is, in my personal opinion, the most dramatically cohesive cast this production has ever had at the Met Opera. This isn’t to discredit any of the great artists that have taken on this production. From Matthew Polenzani’s gentle Alfredo or Michael Fabiano’s vocally resplendent portrayal to Thomas Hampson’s rough and firm Germont and Quinn Kelsey’s more fatherly approach, this production has brought out the best in its interpreters all around.
But Ayan and Domingo followed Giannattasio’s lead without losing their own personalities, together populating this world with three desperate and lonely beings. Domingo was his passionate self, “Di Provenza il mar” a plea of his own, his voice full and lush, the phrases each capped with a pained accent that begged for acknowledgment from his son. While we knew of his daughter, the way the great Spanish artist followed his son with his voice and body, it seemed as if he didn’t care for anyone else in the world but him. Even the second reprise of the aria, saw him up the intensity in his voice (Domingo can seemingly do anything he pleases even at 75), creating even greater desperation in the portrayal. It crowded Ayan’s Alfredo, his desire for freedom all the more apparent throughout the aria. His response to attack his father thus seemed more appropriate and the ensuing slap in the face, which always draws audible responses from the audience, was more effective. As noted, Domingo’s spar with Giannattasio was marked by an impassioned outpouring during “Pura si comme un angelo,” the legendary singer’s phrasing aiming more for impact than polish; he succeeded in spades. And while he sang with warmth and tenderness to console Violetta, his movements expressed a character uncertain of how to deal with the situation. His return for the concertato showcased a firm and brutal approach, but more than angry with his son, Domingo expressed disappointment and deep hurt, the phrasing drooping with anguish.
A Star to Look Out For
Ayan’s Alfredo also had the vibe of a loner, the tenor wandering about aimlessly in the opening sections of the opera, his gaze unable to meet Violetta’s. His brindisi, while filled with vibrant vocal color, was reserved in its volume, expressing his timidity. And his initial exchanges with Violetta at the start of their duet followed this path as well. It was only when he mustered the strength to reveal his love from over a year ago, that the tone shifted and the confidence grew, the full potential of his voice blossoming throughout the opening stanza of “Un dì felice.” He took control of the duet, much like he does Violetta’s life from here on out, the tenor’s Alfredo growing in poise and stature. His “Io son io son felice” at the end of the scene, more than a schoolboy getting what he wanted, saw a man brimming with confidence and composure.
There was thus a heroic quality to his opening Act 2 aria “Lunga da lei… De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” the rhythmic aspects of the aria given great prominence and firmness. This approach met with blooming brightness in his voice, gave us a true portrayal of a sunny romance that was powerfully contrasted with a forceful interpretation of the “Oh mio rimorso!” Here he sang fortissimo, blasting sound over an over-abundant orchestra. Even without the interpolated high C, we could feel the fury of this Alfredo, whose pride was damaged. We usually come away feeling that Alfredo whines a bit too much, but Ayan who convincingly inhabited his pride and growing sense of confidence, allowed the cabaletta to ring true dramatically.
As noted, this growth in confidence saw itself punctured and asphyxiated by Domingo’s needy father and Ayan grew more and more hostile throughout their scene together. This only led to a greater eruption in the ensuing scene, his violent vocal intonations and physicality toward Giannattasio during the “Ogni suo vert al femmina” creating a seemingly irreversible breaking point for the romance. Great actors can really make characters feel fresh and ever-expansive from moment to moment and watching this scene, I reminded myself that I would never have expected this from the First Act Alfredo.
Upon his return in Act 3, Ayan gave an impassioned interpretation of the opening of “Parigi o Cara” recognizing that he was not soothing his beloved but imploring her to follow his lead. More than the lovers providing support for one another, they were both challenging one another throughout this duet, giving it a refreshing and poignant touch.
I won’t comment on Maestro Luisotti because I have said all I wanted to say about his work in my previous review of this production this season. His approach worked better with this cast overall, though his musical idiosyncrasies often did little more than attracting unnecessary attention to themselves. I don’t pretend to have the right answers on how to interpret a Verdi score (no one does), but I personally find the overemphasis on a brassy orchestral color to remind me more of the circus than a heartfelt tragedy.
It is a shame that I write this for a production that has come to an end because I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. But ultimately, with its pitch-perfect cast, this was the perfect way to end a run to one of the greatest operatic productions to come to the Met in the last decade.
I conclude this by stating that this review is for the performance on April 14, 2017. I would also like to recognize that this is just one, performance of a seven-performance run. In an ideal situation, I would attend every performance and write a detailed review of the overall work. As it stands, I can only go on my perspective of one performance.