Metropolitan Opera 2016-17 Review – La Traviata: Sonya Yoncheva Strong Vocally But Dramatically Amiss in Surprisingly Unfulfilling Rendition of Willy Decker’s Masterpiece ProductionBy David Salazar
I preface this by stating that this review is for the performance on March 5, 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.
Willy Decker’s “La Traviata” production is arguably the greatest new production we have seen since Peter Gelb took over as general manager at the Met a decade ago. At its best, the production is an intricate character study of a woman who has become nothing more than an object in a world dominated by men. She is cognizant of her death and does her utmost to destroy herself until hope presents itself in the form of a true and rare love. Desperate to experience love before her time comes to an end she throws herself into it, only to suffer more for it. While the stage is bare-bones, Decker’s circular set and astute use of symbols (a clock, flowers) immerse the viewer that is both emotionally and intellectually fulfilling.
The production also demands singing-actors of the highest order to truly bring out its specific nuances onto the stage. Leaving the stage rather bare, Decker focuses the attention on the actors and these very details. With nothing else to look at, there is no room for error from the performers, adding urgency and stakes to create a potent effect.
But we never quite got there in the performance I witnessed.
Yoncheva’s Vocal Artistry Isn’t Quite Enough for This Production
Leading the cast was 35-year-old Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, who has established herself as somewhat of a “Swiss-army” soprano with her ability to jump from any repertoire with minor difficulty. She recently sang “Norma” for the first time, is delving into Baroque music later this year and is slated to jump from Mozart to Puccini to Verdi next season at the Met. She is truly a versatile singer with a lush and elegant sound. She was particularly affecting when making vocal transitions utilizing crescendos, most specifically in the famous “Ah fors’è lui che l’anima.” As Violetta transitions from uncertainty regarding her feelings for Alfredo into singing his own declaration of love, Yoncheva put together a soaring crescendo on an E natural (“Destandomi all’amor”) that emphasized this transformation.
Her singing was also strong in the famed Act 2 duet with Giorgio Germont. Her voice retained a firmness in early passages when she tried to undermine him, the phrasing direct and curt. During “Voi sapete,” Violetta’s impassioned response to Germont’s request that she leave Alfredo, the magnitude of Yoncheva’s vocal prowess came to the fore, the intense vibrato filling the atmosphere, establishing her as a titanic presence. But that strength dissipated until defeated. She sang with the most delicate of vocal threads during “Dite alla giovine.”
A rush of enunciated frenzy characterized her “Alfredo tu m’ami?” before exploding into volcanic sound on “Amami Alfredo! Amami quant’io t’amo,” the opera’s emotional climax. She gave a gentle account during the famed concertato, her “Alfredo, alfredo” filled with the gentleness of tender forgiveness. Her interpretation of “Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti” was sung with a delicate and polished line. Yoncheva’s portrayal of the second section of the aria gaining in strength until the climactic A natural on “finì” was cut rather short in observation of Verdi’s rhythm. It was an abrupt effect but expressed a sense of Violetta’s end coming soon.
While her vocal exploits were strong throughout, Yoncheva’s overall dramatic portrayal was not quite satisfactory in my view. Her most effective moments came in her death scene as the propensity for slow tempi and slow physical movement throughout the evening felt most at ease in these final moments. But the bottom line is that the general sense of desperation was missing from the overall performance.
The greatness of Decker’s production is the clear arc he gives Violetta. She is the energetic center of the world at the start of the opera before her physicality starts to lose its vibrancy and she withers away and dies. It has rarely been so well articulated in any production. Yoncheva was never quite a ball of energy in the opening act, walking about cautiously on the platform circling the stage. When lifted into the air on the couch, an apparent sense of caution dominated her body. Her flirtation with Fabiano at the start of Act 2 featured a charming joke on her part as she imitated his opening lines. But the ensuing game of cat and mouse was rather tame, Yoncheva’s movements measured and her hiding under a throw seeming less of a moment of inspiration and more of an obligatory stage direction.
One fantastic bit of staging from Decker is having Violetta remove flower-covered throws from sofas during Act 2 after she gives into Germont’s wish. The throws resemble the momentary bliss she is living with Alfredo and their removal shatters the illusion. Yoncheva’s execution of this moment was overly deliberate, lacking the spontaneity that makes it so effective. In this context, the symbolism became overly explicit and ultimately lacking in its dramatic power.
What I wound up experiencing throughout the night was an admiration for vocal prowess without a full sense of dramatic immersion and execution.
A True Verdi Tenor
Michael Fabiano’s tenor is a true gift to anyone who gets a chance to listen to it. His Alfredo was filled with bright warmth throughout the early sections, including a glorious diminuendo on the dotted half note F natural that climaxes the phrase “Ah sì, da un anno.” His “Un dì felice” was miles away from his take of the brindisi, which was forward, bright and propulsive. Instead, he sang the start of the famous duet with tenderness, each phrase building up slowly until he exploded with an impassioned “Di quell’amor” after a euphoric crescendo on the preceding E natural.
Fabiano’s “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” had a nimble quality that expressed the childlike wonder of Alfredo’s love for Violetta, contrasting with a powerful “O mio rimorso.” In Fabiano’s voice, this cabaletta had power, weight and a tremendous sense of anger about to explode, which it did on his climactic high C.
That anger would transform into noticeable fury during the “Ogni suo vert al femmina,” Fabiano’s phrasing pointed, accented and backed by rapid vocal oscillation. Here too he built the dramatic tension, ramping up the weight and speed of his vibrato with each phrase until he found his most powerful combination at the climactic “Ce qui pagato io l’ho.”
Ultimately Fabiano’s work on this evening was a reminder that he needs to be doing more Verdi repertoire at the Met, his voice’s power, squillo coupled with his musical intelligence making him a perfect fit.
Dramatically Complete Hampson
Thomas Hampson, who sang Germont at the premiere of this very production in Salzburg a decade ago, was a dominant presence from his entrance onward, his singing filled with subtext. His voice had a harder edge throughout the night, expressing a severity and rigidness that contrasted well with his co-stars. He was particularly forceful and harsh in his opening lines, a sense of disgust toward Violetta apparent. His movement was stiff, he barely even turned to look at her and even ripped a paper out of her hand at one moment. But as he softened to her, he removed his hand, made eye contact with her and sang with a slender quality, his tone growing more and more delicate as the evening progressed.
His “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” featured thoughtful phrasing, Hampson’s first section gentle and flowing. As the opening section reached its emotional climax on “Dio mi guido,” the warmth and bright revealed the fatherly love buried inside this regal man. But the rejection of his son allowed Hampson to take a different approach in the reprisal, the singing filled with more weight and attacks as Germont scolded his son.
After slapping Alfredo prior to the cabaletta “No, non udrai rimproveri” Hampson’s sound, which had grown harsher with each passing exchange suddenly took on a hushed tone as he cautiously apologized to his son.
Germont launches the famous concertato “Di Sprezzo Degno Se Stesso Rende” and Hampson dug into every single consonant, mirroring the vocal disgust he expressed during his opening exchanges with Violetta at the top of the second act. Counterpointed by Yoncheva’s tender entrance and Fabiano’s sense of desperation, this was one of the more powerful dramatic moments of the evening.
Death Looming Large
I apologize to conductor Nicola Luisotti for the comments that follow because I lay any perceived dramatic inefficiencies squarely on his shoulders. From what I intuited on the night, Decker’s emphasis on death played a key role in how he interpreted Verdi’s score. Luisotti’s concept of death dominating the proceedings seemed to mean that the bass and brass would get extra emphasis, which it did to awkward effect. Often this led to a lack of definition in some chords, the balance of the colors unclear. This was particularly haunting (and not in a transcendent way) in the Act 1 and 3 preludes. The Met Orchestra seemed to have a rather rough night as a result, the usually brilliant ensemble lacking fluidity and individual mistakes becoming rather apparent throughout. The famed clarinet solo in Act 2 was uneven with the soloist cracking a note at one unfortunate moment.
In terms of other musical gestures, Luisotti seemed to be wielding a sledgehammer throughout the evening instead of a baton as subtlety was far from his strength. Any sudden sforzando or crescendo that Verdi’s score calls for was jarringly exaggerated. The same went for any musical ideas he brought to the score. During the second section of “Addio, del passato,” Luisotti decided that he was going to give the repeated bass accompaniment greater emphasis. But instead of adding to the dramatic weight of the situation, it distracted from Yoncheva’s own approach, almost demanding that it be heard over the singer. Every sustained note that ended any section or piece was held out as if it featured two or three fermatas (the ending of Alfredo’s cabaletta for example). Tempi were unsteady, most languishing throughout the evening. During “Di Provenza,” Hampson seemed interested in pushing the pace a bit, but Luisotti was not in agreement. Hampson eventually settled into Luisotti’s tempo. During the final trio, Hampson again seemed intent on pushing the pace a bit, but Luisotti would not relent and the baritone eventually settled back into the conductor’s choice. The chorus and the orchestra were also in different places during the early stages of the concertato, only Yoncheva’s entrance putting the whole puzzle back together. During the card-playing music, Luisotti surprisingly opted for breakneck speed but when he returned to the music for the second time, the tempo was slower.
As I stated in the above disclaimer, this is but one night of a run that still has several performances remaining. The cast is full of tremendous talent and it is possible that they could pull it all together on a different night. Willy Decker’s brilliant production certainly deserves as much.