Metropolitan Opera 2018-19 Review: La Traviata
Diana Damrau Makes Her Mark In Clumsily Executed ProductionBy David Salazar
Verdi’s “La Traviata” was given a new look at the Metropolitan Opera starting on Tuesday, with the second performance taking place on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Unlike the previous new productions for “Marnie” and “Samson et Dalila,” the stakes were considerably different given that this opera is a major classic and the previous interpretation of the work was not beloved by all.
In fact, Willy Decker’s production of “La Traviata” was a rather controversial one. Its symbolic minimalism was insightful and visceral, though for many, it was far from what Verdi and Piave had intended for one of their great masterpieces. Moreover, it was a challenging version to mount successful every season due to its requirement of a strong singer who was also a limitless actress. Unfortunately, not putting on “Traviata” every year can be an understandable economic problem for a repertory house like the Met that relies on the popular classics, like “La Bohème” and “La Traviata,” to offset the risks of putting on less popular works. In the end everyone wins if popular classics can be surefire box office hits.
So it was inevitable that the Decker version, which produced some of the most memorable performances at the house in recent years, would have a short shelf-life and when that time came, its replacement would be more traditional in its approach.
We saw this recently with “Tosca” as Gelb brought on Luc Bondy to be an anti-Zeffirelli and that unpopular iteration was replaced by David McVicar’s own direction which resembled the Zeffirelli one in many respects.
The same thing has seemingly happened with this new “Traviata” where some of the best ideas from Zeffirelli’s own approach were thrown together with elements that have become signatures of director Michael Mayer.
Visual Distraction Part One – An Unnecessary Addition
To this point Tony Award-winning Michael Mayer’s opera productions have been marred by visual distraction and a lack of focus in his staging. Whether it be the over-cluttered Las Vegas casino in “Rigoletto” or having Marnie change her dress every other scene in his recent interpretation of Nico Muhly’s new opera, Mayer’s productions seem to focus on introducing elements that take away from the story instead of enhancing it anyway.
The first example must undeniably be the decision to have Germont bring his teenage daughter to Violetta’s home. A man of such moral standing would not want his daughter, whose integrity he is trying to protect, to associate in any way with a prostitute. He literally walks into her house in such a brusque manner that Violetta is forced to defend herself. He clearly doesn’t feel comfortable there so why bring his virginal daughter there?
But the problem goes beyond a misunderstanding of the characters and becomes a simple problem of staging and forgetting about the audience. Germont’s daughter is a silent actor. As such, she becomes an “invasive” element in a dramatic world in which every character expresses his or herself through singing (except for the ballet dancers). One might note that Decker had the personification of death lumbering silently, but the director’s artistic proposition was symbolic from the get-go and so we accepted this as part of the world. Mayer is offering something more classical and “realistic,” and so we expect this from elements incorporated in the interpretation.
The simple fact that the sister is onstage makes her a point of focus for the audience on a number of levels. Those who don’t know the opera will wonder why she doesn’t sing like everyone else and what her point is onstage in a scene where the only ones who seem to be engaging are Germont and Violetta. And for those who do know the opera (which is likely a large percentage of the audience), she is a novelty in the scene and suddenly we start to wonder what she might add dramatically.
Unfortunately, Mayer sets up the character, but has no development and no ultimate payoff for this choice as the daughter is introduced and is subsequently sidelined for the rest of the scene as Violetta and Germont interact in a manner we would have anticipated without her presence. Moreover, her appearance undercuts “Dite alla giovine” because you wonder why Violetta simply doesn’t speak directly to the girl who is right there in the room with her. Interestingly, Mayer’s direction of Violetta almost has the heroine fail to acknowledge that the daughter is in the room after the initial presentation. And the truth of the matter is that if she were cut out of the production today, no one would even notice nor would the staging overall be affected in the least.
Neither Verdi or Piave thought she needed to be there. Who knows if they even considered putting her in as there’s no precedent in the Dumas novel on which the opera was based. And even if she had been a consideration, she would have been an added element and Verdi would have been forced to write music for her, altering the entire dynamics of one of the greatest scenes in all of opera. So they never included her.
It turns out that they knew what they were doing.
Visual Distraction Part Two – Costume Design
Another major point of contention is the costume design and color scheme. As the curtain rises, we see Violetta on her death bed surrounded by everyone that would be with her – Alfredo, Germont, Dr. Grenvil, Anina, and the unnamed sister. As the prelude develops, Violetta awakens while the others remain frozen in place. She is conscious at the very moment of her demise and the approach seems to be to show her “life flash before her eyes.”
There have been statements that mention it all being a fever dream or something to that effect, but that never quite develops in anyway outside of bombastic colors and a ghost that shows up in the third act – another setup with no further development or payoff.
The first act’s celebration looks like it came out of a Disney movie with Alfredo dressed up in a suit reminiscent of the Prince from “Beauty and the Beast” and the chorus making silly synchronized movements with their arms at a few points in the score. What makes them standout more (and not in a great way) is that these movements are rather infrequent, thus seemingly feeling like they were thrown in to have the chorus do something once in a while; the rest of the time, they stand around in a manner reminiscent of the Vegas “Rigoletto.” Unfortunately, the aggressive colors that they wear make them an unnecessary and unintentional distraction throughout the first act.
Perhaps the biggest mishap in terms of wardrobe was the lack of attention placed on Germont’s own look. Little attempt was made to make Quinn Kelsey look like the father of Juan Diego Flórez; instead, he looked like his brother of the same age. Throw in the daughter, who also looked of a similar age, and you really start causing yourself some major issues from a visual aspect. We can accept the relationship if we know the opera, but not everyone in the audience is going to come with that understanding and it could definitely lead to confusion and lack of credibility in the story. Perhaps other artists can make it work (like Plácido Domingo in the Spring run), but this cast is headed to HD broadcasts around the world where all kinds of audiences, including opera neophytes, will be watching.
Mayer’s choices with regards to the staging were far from exemplary. For example, you had characters repeating the same actions multiple times. During both of Germont’s arias, Alfredo takes his place in the same seat on stage left (he seemed to do everything on that seat throughout the night). From there he would get up and walk toward the bed. During “Di Provenza,” he sat down on the bed. By the time the second aria came around and he made the same exact movement, you almost anticipated that he would sit on the bed again. While he didn’t, the problem was clear.
The arias themselves pose a challenge as Germont is basically asking for the same thing from his son in both, so it takes a strong director to find a narrative arc to make them work. Decker had Germont slap Alfredo right before “No, no udrai rimproveri” and then tasked the father with seeking out his son’s forgiveness after practically imposing on him throughout “Di Provenza.” But Mayer had no such ideas for the scene and it played out exactly the same both times, making the second aria feel like superfluous from a dramatic standpoint.
During “Parigi, o cara,” both Diana Damrau and Flórez sat at the bed in what was a gorgeous moment of intimacy. Suddenly, Alfredo stands up from the bed and drags the sick Violetta from her bed as the music heats up. It was actually kind of awkward seeing the poor, dying Violetta try to make her way to the front of the stage; you felt like Alfredo was being a bit negligent. But you stick with it because perhaps there will be an arrival point. But the result was that the singers just stood and sang without moving from the spot. This was yet another instance of Mayer setting up something that wouldn’t develop past the original beat.
Flórez was made to roam around the stage throughout his “O mio rimorso,” clumsily putting on his boot and jacket while he sang through the famed cabaletta. There has been a tendency by many modern opera directors to have singers roam around as opposed to having them stand put and let the music tell the story, perhaps with the idea that movement will engage the viewer more than static imagery. But it is in moments like “O mio rimoroso” and the standing from the bed in “Parigi, o cara” that one is reminded that movement does not automatically make a staging look more realistic or “alive” unless it has a clear intention and direction behind it. This was often not the case in this production.
To Mayer’s credit, the framework that he gave Damrau to carve out her own characterization of the doomed courtesan was a positive contribution to the production and the third Act, with the exception of the ghost,” was undeniably the best of the three Acts from a dramatic standpoint.
One final comment must be made on the ballet from the final scene of Act two. With its aggressively sexual overtones, the choreography by Lorin Latarro was enticing to watch and was exactly what we all hoped we would get for the Bacchanale from “Samson et Dalila” but ultimately didn’t.
As for the set itself, it is far more colorful and ornate than the production it replaced and yet, ironically, it seems to call back to it in the semi-circular shape of the stage with an open top and the fact that, like in Decker’s iteration, there are aspects of the world of the production that remain consistent throughout this version. For example, the bed sits there in middle (as well as some other furniture), a constant reminder that we are still attached to Violetta’s present despite being in the past. For Decker, it was the clock that remained a persistent element, though with greater symbolic force.
These borrowed ideas and callbacks emphasize an overall lack of originality that is only exacerbated when you remember that the whole flashback approach that underpins this direction was championed by other directors, principally Zeffirelli in both his Met staging and famed Academy Award-winning movie adaptation.
On the whole, it makes Mayer’s approach feel like a hodgepodge of other better ideas.
Man of the House
One of the major narratives around this production was that this would be the first opera that Yannick Nézet-Séguin would conduct as music director of the Met and that it was the start of new era.
What would this era bring about? Aside from the vitality of the French-Canadian maestro replacing for a man shrouded in scandal, there was mention of Nézet-Séguin being interested in a re-examination of classics and how they were presented. As such, it was reported by the New York Times that he had “fought” to restore the second intermission of “La Traviata,” stating “Verdi is strongest when we respect the text very much, when we respect the music when we respect the drama.” We’ve already seen this recently with Riccardo Chailly’s own approach at La Scala, and the thought of someone doing something similar at the Met seemed like an exciting proposition.
Nézet-Séguin seemingly didn’t have much say in whether the drama itself was respected as Mayer’s production would indicate, but as for the music, it was rather interesting to see that while he vouched for Verdi’s intentions when it came to the second intermission, that same level of advocacy wasn’t present with regards to the legendary composer’s original intentions in the score. Instead of presenting the music as it was written, the conductor employed traditional cuts to cabalettas and duets. One must consider other factors of time, labor unions, the performers themselves with regards to these continued musical practices, but it remained disappointing nonetheless to see a familiar approach in this regard.
But this is but one aspect of the conductor’s performance. He has been a consistently strong performer, his “Parsifal” and “Elektra” a season ago both fascinating, so his “Traviata” was undoubtedly a work to look forward to.
It had its strong moments, particularly in the mirroring preludes of Act one and three. These two preludes include crescendos at major climaxes of the movement; in the first prelude it comes around the 13th measure while it comes around 12 or 13 measures before the end of the third Act prelude. In both instances, the builds were poignant and filled with tension, the conductor expanding the tempi just a bit to add weight to the moment.
On the whole, the ensemble was rather cohesive and tight in the execution; it’s become one of his trademarks in recent productions and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra sounds focused and dialed-in under his command. In this regard, the chorus was also on point throughout the night.
That said, there were some things left to be desired from his interpretative choices for the work. The conductor seemed to be operating on extremes of dynamic throughout. While it worked in some instances (the cresendoes already noted), at other times such gestures rather called attention to themselves, drawing the attention away from the vocal lines they were accompanying. Accents on punctuating chords in recitatives or arias always seemed be the same level of over-emphatic. Germont’s entrance was characterized by overly aggressive accents on the off-beat. Codas that included full orchestra prioritized percussion and brass, which made the ensemble sounded more like a loud banda than a balanced orchestra. At other times, the orchestral forces were so loud that they virtually covered the singers; this was most noticeable during the “Libiamo,” where the two soloists appeared to be underpowered to begin with.
What ended up happening over time is that the interpretation felt predictable; every time a fortissimo chord was about to come, you could predict just how strong and aggressive it would be. Repeatedly using the same effects ends up creating diminishing returns over time and this is exactly what happened with the conductor’s often-labored reading of the Verdi score.
There was actually a sense of relief when the orchestra was least noticeable, particularly in the Act two duet between Germont and Violetta; you felt that the maestro was stepping away a bit to provide support for the soloists. We also heard this in “Parigi, o cara” and Nézet-Séguin was particularly sensitive to his singers throughout the final Act.
Back To Her Best
Soprano Diana Damrau’s night didn’t necessarily get off to the most sterling of beginnings. Her timbre had an increasingly granular quality with a widening vibrato that threw off her pitches on open vowels and higher notes. This was present throughout the first Act, exacerbated by the fact that there didn’t seem to be any potency or brightness to match the more jovial quality of the opening scenes.
Her interaction with Juan Diego Flórez’s during “Un dì felice” also seemed to lack any true connection between the two. She shut him down but then sat down in a chair until eventually they communed vocally. The build to this moment was rather unearned from a dramatic standpoint and Damrau’s descending 64th note figures on “Amar non so” were a tad shrill in the execution with pitch inconsistencies.
Fortunately, the start of the big scena to end the scene was easily her best moment of the first Act, the soprano taking a brief pause at the conclusion of the previous chorus before reciting “E strano.”
“Ah fors’è lui,” despite featuring wide vibrato that resulted in unsteady intonation in parts, featuring some glorious dynamic phrasing from the soprano. The E natural before the key change to F major on “A quel’amor” was absolutely sublime, building up seamlessly from the phrase right before it.
“Sempre libera” was unfortunately the low point of the performance for Damrau as her voice struggled to reach the high Cs and C sharps littered throughout the cabaletta. During the second reprise of the passage, the soprano seemed to be singing rather softly and at times was inaudible during ascending coloratura runs.
Fortunately, the opera doesn’t end there and the vocal line sits a bit lower in the ensuing acts. From the second act onward, the German soprano not only got better, but she put on a truly mesmerizing and riveting display.
She seemed to get a handle on the unwieldy vibrato from the first Act and displayed a greater degree of vocal brightness and focus. She navigated the duet with Germont wonderfully, her singing vibrant and full of life in the opening passages, but slowly growing darker and quieter as the scene moved toward the harrowing “Dite alla giovine.” Damrau employed a beautifully subtle messa di voce on the B flat fermata right before the key change and then delivered the opening phrases of that heart-breaking moment with a haunting piano sound, building her timbre throughout until she unleashed a high A flat full of pain and desperation. The repeat of the main melody was even more intense with the ensuing “fil di voce” on the high G natural and high A flat slowly losing that potency each time.
Damrau gave her all in the big “Amami Alfredo,” though she was a bit overpowered by the orchestra; this was not the case in the pezzo concertante from the ensuing scene, the soprano’s voice riding well over the ensemble.
But the third Act was where she really shone and proved one of the most riveting moments that Damrau has had on that stage. Bed-ridden and weak, it was impossible not to get emotionally involved with Damrau’s physical portrayal of the dying heroine. Her reading of the letter, despite spoken, had an emotional crescendo that climaxed in a frayed reading of the final lines and painful shouted “E tardi.”
Her interpretation of the aria was even better. The passages of “Addio del passato” are marked pianissimo throughout, an indication that Damrau followed carefully. Her vibrato was limited and her voice, while possessing a frail color, featured polished legato and clarity. Crescendoes were observed but never overemphasized, giving the aria a greater intimacy. The high A natural at the close of the first stanza was performed with a beautiful fil di voce that diminendoed to nothing; the repeat of that same note at the end of the aria as a whole also started fil di voce, but Damrau crescendoed gloriously to the close, the length of the note and the effect generating not only palpable tension but a sense of someone battling to regain full strength. The sudden release, coupled with the repeated eighth notes in the strings seemed to kill this idea of rebirth quite quickly to strong dramatic effect.
In the ensuing scene with Alfredo, we saw Damrau’s Violetta fight fate by trying to force herself outside against their will. Her proclamations of “No, voglio uscire” had an aggressive nature that emphasized Violetta’s fighting will, but her subsequent fall was met with a potent realization of her fate. As she uttered “Ma se tornando no m’hai salvato,” she lifted herself up slowly, the movement pushing Flórez away from her and giving both of them a devastating reality check. From there, the soprano launched into a potent crescendo on the high G natural “Ah” before launching into an aggressive “Gran Dio! Morir si giovane.”
In her final moments, the soprano’s voice transformed from an increasingly softer and more hushed vocalization to perhaps one of her most intense outpourings, her sound more refulgent than at any other moment in the show.
While things didn’t get off to the best of starts, Damrau was in fine form by the end of the night with a devastating portrayal of a woman fighting to stay alive despite already understanding her fate.
Something Mixed This Way Comes
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez returned to the Met in his first production with the company since he performed in Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” Since then, he has moved on to “heavier” repertoire,taking on more French operas and weightier Italian pieces.
The Met, of course, presents a unique challenge for singers because of its size. Flórez has never had trouble being a vocal presence in the theater in lighter Italian repertoire by Rossini, Donizetti, or Bellini, but at times Verdi’s denser orchestrations seemed to push his gorgeous tenor to the brink.
This was particularly noticeable during the first Act where he was overpowered by everyone around him during the Brindisi. “Un dì felice,” despite featuring suave legato from the Peruvian artist, saw him pushing his sound as forward as he could, creating an uneven tone at times in lower reaches.
This were more challenging for him in the second scene of Act two where Alfredo’s tessitura is a bit lower. The lower notes lacked fullness and his timbre as a whole sounded weary.
But then there were moments where he clearly suited the role beautifully. Among these was his aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” where a more restrained orchestra gave the tenor ample support to weave elegant legato lines with more vibrant tone. The cadenza, where it was just him, was particularly marvelous, Flórez seemingly freed to just let his voice soar to the best of its ability.
The ensuing cabaletta “O mio rimorso,” despite requiring heft, worked well for Flórez. Even if he was fighting the increasingly agitated orchestra at times, he still managed to pack just enough oomph and brightness in his singing to make it all work. His choice to transpose upward to the high C at the close of the cabaletta was also rewarding (he also transposed “Croce e delizia” during “Sempre Libera” to strong effect).
But his best moment of the night, bar none, was “Parigi, o cara.” He did come in a measure early but recovered quickly and proceeded to craft every single line with utmost delicacy. His tenor was gentle and soothing, exactly what you would expect from a man caring for his sick lover.
He ultimately managed a successful portrait of Alfredo as an impetuous young man. He was tense and timid at the start and then rather aggressive in his proclamations of “Io son felice,” as if trying to convince Violetta of his sincerity. His reactions to his father throughout “Di provenza,” were those of a selfish young man; he turned his back, walked away, and generally showed little respect for his father’s wishes. This built further into the ensuing scene where he was increasingly brutal and aggressive. It allowed for the reversal in the pezzo concertante to have full effect and thus emphasized an arc for Alfredo toward maturity.
On a brief and fun aside, this production has sustained an unintentional (?) Peter-Gelb era streak of having Juan Diego Flórez wear a leather jacket in every single new production he has appeared in since the arrival of the Met Opera’s current general manager.
Stoic & Immovable
As Germont, Quinn Kelsey filled the Met auditorium with his plush baritone, particularly in “Di Provenza.” He emphasized the marcato marking during the repetition of “Chi dal cor ti cancellò” and “Qual destino ti furó,” adding a bit of aggression in his otherwise peaceful and yearning plea.
During the duet with Damrau, his singing took on a gentler complexion as the scene progressed to a peaceful resolution for him and in the “Disprezzo degna,” the baritone unleashed tremendous vocal power throughout.
It was a solid vocal performance even if dramatically it would have been more interesting to see Germont relate to Alfredo in more ways during his two arias; as performed on Friday, the tendency seemed for him to follow his son around begging for his acceptance. One would imagine that such a rigid man might get fed up with the stubborn and downright disrespectful treatment he gets from his son and take some action.
Audiences who wanted something more traditional visually will be happy with this new “Traviata,” though one hopes that the clumsiness of the staging and the exaggerated color scheme of the costumes will get some sort of revisions for future iterations.
As for this current run of performances, Diana Damrau makes it worth it on her own. She should be fascinating in HD.