Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: La Traviata (Cast B)
Lisette Oropesa Delivers Breathtaking Display in Verdi’s Masterpiece Alongside Wondrous CastBy David Salazar
(Credit: Richard Termine / Met Opera)
The role of Violetta in “La Traviata” is one of the most challenging in all of the repertory despite its ubiquity. As such, there are a lot of sopranos who manage to pull off the role, though few with overall great vocal and dramatic consistency on stage.
But Lisette Oropesa, taking on the role at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time (according to her official website she had taken it on just 11 times prior to this run), is one of the few artists that can manage to pull off the role with not only the dramatic temperament, but also the vocal consistency.
Peak of Her Powers
This was clear from the start of her performance on Feb. 29, 2020. Violetta’s opening line is surprisingly low in the voice, ending on C sharp a half-step up from middle C and living an octave above it. It ascends in subsequent lines to a G sharp though the vocal line does move into the lower register a few times during these opening exchanges. What made these brief lines impactful was how even Oropesa’s voice moved up and down the register with evenness and consistency, a hallmark of her interpretation throughout the night.
Oropesa’s Violetta enjoyed being the center of attention, though it was clear from a few glances that she didn’t really think much of Alfredo upon being introduced to him. It wasn’t until the Brindisi where she seemed to show some curiosity, even using hand gestures at one point to get Flora to usher the Baron Douphol away so she might get a closer look at this new suitor. She retained a brightness in her exchanges during the Brindisi, establishing herself as the life of the party from the get-go.
Then came the duet, where Oropesa really played up the ambiguity of her affection for Alfredo. She laughed him off at his every attempt to convince her of his love, avoiding his glance repeatedly. But when he asserted himself with “Ah sì, da un anno,” she slowly turned to him, the mocking tone shifting to one of interest. As tenor Piero Pretti initiated “Un dì felice,” Oropesa looked away, taking it all in, clearly affected by it. But then she jumped up for “Ah se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,” laughing him off with the pointed renditions of the descending 32nd note phrases. Slowly, as the duet progressed, her sound lightened a bit, the 32nds notes less accented and the phrasing blending more and more with Pretti’s fluid line. They merged with one another, matching each phrase acutely. During the cadenza, Verdi wrote a scalar 32nd note ascension in thirds for both parts; most singers tend to start it slowly and build it up together. It is understandable given how much of a mess it can be if the first notes aren’t together. But Oropesa and Pretti were so aligned in this moment emotionally and musically, that they threw off the scale in time together without any hesitation.
During the ensuing passage, she dispatched Alfredo with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance, passing him the flower, but then moving away from him as if trying to figure him out. It added to the tension between them, while also giving the scene a playful quality.
And then came her big scene. The chorus exited and Oropesa took a well-timed and rather reflective pause, the first of two in the opera. Then in the softest tones she could muster, she began the opening “È strano.” She built a long emotional crescendo across the opening recitative, climaxing on “del viver” before a stark diminuendo brought her voice back to the level of those opening notes, giving the entire opening section a circular shape.
“Ah, fors’è lui” was another masterfully built musical passage with Oropesa delicately delivering the opening lines, the high A flats floated sublimely. In leading up to “O quell’amor, she built momentum throughout “Lui, che modesto e vigile” with a crescendo that felt like one expansive phrase, the breaths almost imperceptible. And then she drove right into the famed melody with a glorious crescendo on the E natural. Here she allowed her voice to bloom, giving free reign to her emotions and really letting the audience feel that Violetta had made her choice. The aria once again ended with a delicate piano, but the hesitance that this piano sound had hinted at in the recitativo leading up to the aria now felt like a gentle caress.
This allowed for the ensuing “Follie!” to pack a bigger punch as it forcefully pushed the listener out of the previous lull. And from here, Oropesa delivered some truly showstopping virtuosity. There’s a certain level of comfort as a listener when you know that someone is so technically sound that every note will be in its place; but there is always a sense of awe at actually seeing them pull it off.
Oropesa dove right into the aria without any restraint. There were no excessive ritenutos and sections of the cabaletta that get slowed down (like the syncopated phrases on “dee volar dee volar”) were sung as written in the score. Instead, it was a relentless forward drive that created truly mesmerizing excitement with the soprano dispatching every run, every note with pinpoint precision. And even when she did seem to struggle ever so slightly, she adjusted and managed remarkably. During the lengthy coloratura run up to the high D flat before the repeat of the main melody, she seemed to lose some of her support, and the run sounded a bit wonky; nonetheless, she managed to pull it off in a single breath. Then during the descending coloratura runs before “dee volar il pensier,” she seemed to stumble a bit with the first two slurred notes and made the quick adjustment to bridge the remaining ones together. She managed it with such skill that it is likely most people in the auditorium didn’t notice it. That I even bring it up is out of respect for an artist so in control of her instrument that she’s ready for anything and everything. And yes, she threw off an exquisite high E flat at the climax of the aria.
The second Act is the dramatic heart and soul of the opera and Oropesa elevated every aspect of her performance in this act. Her duet with Germont was a heart-wrenching right from the start with the soprano standing her ground in the initial exchanges while maintaining a relaxed disposition.
But when she realized what her fate would be, Oropesa’s voice soared in the hall at the climax of “Non sapete,” the fortissimo high B flat ringing gloriously. From there, she took a more introspective approach to the ensuing passages, her timbre more hushed during “Cosi alla misera” before transitioning beautifully to the silence right before the fermata B flat that leads into “Dite alla misera.” From nothing, Oropesa delivered a very understated but poignant mezza di voce, expressing Violetta’s pain and concession all in one masterstroke. She then dispatched the famed musical passage that follows with pure piano sound and a glorious legato line; you could feel the hints of sobbing, which were tinged with subtle vibrato. She included a subtle portamento in connecting several notes throughout the passage, furthering this sense of sorrow; her use of the portamento would take on a more striking characteristic of her singing in the final act. This duet concluded with the most heartbreaking of pleas from Oropesa’s Violetta as she asked Germont to remember her sacrifice and let Alfredo know of it. As he walked out of the room one last time, her delivery of the final “Conosca il sacrifizio” was fragile in its sentiment, the vocalism disembodied.
The next big scene for Violetta is what she believes to be that final moment with Alfredo in which she declares her love for him. Most sopranos really play up this feeling of a heartbroken goodbye, to truly emotional effect. But Oropesa took a different approach altogether.
At the start of “Ch’ei qui non mi sorprenda,” she started to move about the stage with increased desperation, eventually running to Alfredo at the edge of the bed and giving into the pain on the increasingly rapid repetitions of “Alfredo, tu m’ami?” And that’s where she left the outward suffering in this scene.
From then on, she held herself to together and stood up to deliver “Amami Alfredo, amami quant’io t‘amo” as a grand declaration of love, the voice soaring with all the strength she could muster. There was no hint of sadness in her interpretation, her expression of love as sincere as could be. And as she left, she gave him a smile and blew a kiss in his direction – she wanted to leave Alfredo one last time with an image of the happiness he gave her. And that made that moment all the more heartbreaking.
Throughout the party, she sat off to one side trying to hide from the chaos that was building, her repetitions of “Ah, perchè veni incauta!” growing more expansive and diminuendoing to suggest Violetta’s weakening. Her confrontation with Alfredo a few moments later was beautifully rendered with Oropesa looking away from him constantly. The fact that this scene took place at the same exact part of the stage as the end of their first duet seemed to bring the relationship full circle in a tragic way; while Alfredo expressed his differing emotions in the two scenes rather openly, Violetta was forced to hide her complex ones both times.
During the concertato, she spun some truly mesmerizing legato lines, replete with portamenti and a shimmering vibrato that really penetrates the listener. Moreover, she basically carried the ensemble, her voice always resonant at its center, which is a truly challenging balance to find in such a massive piece.
For Act three, Oropesa brought about another stunning pause right at the beginning, delaying her entrance to dramatic effect. The orchestra finished the prelude and for a few seconds, silence permeated the hall. Then a microscopically hushed “Annina” came into the hall as Oropesa commenced the scene. Throughout this act, she retained this more reserved tone, the timbre tending toward a straighter tone in many instances, really giving off the sense that Violetta’s death was imminent.
Her reading of Germont’s letter was revealing as halfway through she looked away from the paper and continued reciting it; she had read it so many times in her bed that she had already committed it to memory. With this slight choice, Oropesa’s Violetta was letting us know not only that a lot of time had passed since receiving the letter, but that she had been waiting painfully all this time. Her “È tardi,” despite being less accented than other interpretations, hit hard because of this psychological revelation.
The opening section of “Addio del passatto” was truly dolce in its approach, with Oropesa employing portamenti to equally devastating effect; she moved from the A natural up to E natural on “ridenti” before having her voice slide down the octave for the next phrase, creating a beautiful weeping effect. She built up this first section of the aria gradually to the high A natural on “Ah! tutto finì,” which is written ppp in the score. On this sustained high A, the soprano made a potent crescendo, allowing her voice to open up to its maximum potential before she released it furiously and ran toward the desk; the entire motion created a visceral effect of grief and struggle. The second section was sung with even lighter colors, the soprano unleashing her sound more on the climaxes, but ultimately opting to sing the final high A natural with a mezza di voce straight tone; she generated some incredible tension with this note and received some tremendous applause once she had let it fade away.
Oropesa’s Violetta did fade away more and more in ensuing scenes with weightless singing growing more delicate with each passing section; you could hear this in “Parigi, o cara” and especially in the final scene “Prendi, quest’è imagine” where she drew you in with to listen to the thin thread of sound resonating gloriously out of her body.
Still Oropesa gave audiences one final taste of her vocal strength throughout “Grand Dio! Morir sì giovine” where she threw caution to the wind and delivered a desperate lament. And of course, in the her final moments, Oropesa built up to the high B flat on “O gioia” before turning to Alfredo and jumping into his arms. That she died while he held her also added to the tragedy of the moment.
Oropesa has several performances remaining in this role this season and returns in 2020-21 for more “Traviata.” Go see her.
As Germont, audiences were gifted with a wonderfully idiomatic turn from Italian baritone Luca Salsi. More than an ogre with a heart of gold, Salsi’s Germont came off as a well-meaning man stuck in a situation he doesn’t know how to handle. You got a sense that in an opera about people trapped by social structures, he was also caught in his world’s web. His opening lines toward Oropesa’s Violetta might have been harsh and even his ripping a paper out of her hand was horrifying, but he seemed to double back almost instantly on these choices right away, his face full of guilt. This sense of inner conflict dominated his performance and his vocal interpretation slowly took on a softer and gentler complexion throughout.
Nowhere was this more present than in the duet with Violetta. The opening phrases of “Pura si comme un angelo” are written “Dolcissimo cantabile” in the score and Salsi’s voice was as soft as he could muster, the baritone’s vocalism a contrast from the firm brusqueness of his opening lines. With this thin thread of sound, we wove up and down with ease, allowing the rising crescendo and diminuendo phrasing to gain clarity. His movements throughout his duet doubled down on the intentions behind his singing – he was trying to connect with Violetta, who was either turned away from him or ignoring him altogether.
When he told her that she would find another lover, he sat beside her on the bed, interpreting “Ah dunque, dunque sperdasi” with an intent to console rather than placate. Even as he cresendoed to the high F natural on “vinco lo che lieti,” the E flat on “a prieghi miei resistere no, no,”or the high F on “”Dio che ispira tal detti a un genitor,” you could still feel the tone retaining a lightened touch.
And Germont’s realization and connection with Violetta was furthered by one aspect of the performance that one often doesn’t feel in many performances of this duet. Salsi and Oropesa were truly listening to one another, matching musicalop gestures, always responding to one another musically. Many baritones tend to really dig into the contrasting lines throughout the second half of “Dite alla giovine,” especially as many are written forte or as crescendos in the score. It creates a unique effect of hearing two characters grappling with individual emotions, but in this performance, Salsi seemed very sensitive to Oropesa’s musical builds and crescendos and he never once detracted from allowing her to lead the exchange. It was all capped in a cadenza that truly united their voices as one, the two together on every single gesture and note. As such, there was a true sense kinship between the two and their sense of pain in the moment was a shared one; here, Germont’s guilt was truly expressed in his continued desire to ease the pain of Orospesa’s Violetta.
Germont’s big moment is his double aria at the close of the first scene of Act two and Salsi displayed fidelity to the score that allowed him to explore vocal nuance that got to the core of the music’s ability to express character.
The opening phrase of the aria (“Di provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancelò?)” is marked dolce halfway through the first first phrase and then has a piannsimo marking in the mirroring phrase (“chi dal cor ti cancelò, di Provenza il mar, il suo?”) that follows. This pattern of phrasing continues throughout the opening stanza of the aria, allowing for this feeling that Germont isn’t quite sure what tactics to try on his son. Should he be firm or gentle? Stoic and harsh, or loving and pleading? Salsi, standing firmly in the middle of the stage throughout this opening section, expressed this emotional confusion through his precise adherence to the score, his voice retaining a flexible quality. Crescendoes were contained, never growing too aggressively, retaining consistency of his overall interpretation of Germont as a man full of empathy for those around him. He climaxed the opening stanza of the aria with the most glorious of diminuendos on the fermata E flat on “Dio mi guido,” his rather generous extension of the diminuendo full of pain and suffering. It was a showstopping vocal moment you don’t often get.
His reprisal of the aria’s second stanza “A il tuo Vecchio genitor” was more committed to piano dynamics, and here he moved about following his son, attempting with this gentler approach to connect with him. This choice allowed his crescendo at the climax of the aria to be all the more effective and his second fermata E flat on “Dio m’è saudì” was impassioned and intense, his baritone ringing into the theater with greater strength than at any other point in the performance. The aria’s cadenza retained this similar forte dynamic and he eventually diminuendoed it beautifully on the final D flat.
This tender interpretation of Germont made his decision not to slap Alfredo across the face not only more realistic, but also more shocking; how could a man this kind even consider something like that? If we had seen a more brutal Germont from the start, then that moment likely feels less surprising and ultimately less effective. The looks the two men gave one another really created the effect that something in this relationship had been altered and Salsi’s interpretation of “No, non udrai rimproveri” became a true attempt to ask for forgiveness. Again, he hued closely to the score’s markings of pianissimo phrasing, ramping up his singing toward the climax to create a sense of increased pleading.
In the famed concertato, “Disprezzo degno” was less a public rebuke and rejection, and more a pained grievance of a father trying to understand his son’s actions. When he sought out Violetta to console her, the emotional transition felt consistent with where Germont had been at the start of the scene and where he was headed throughout.
From Timid to Consoling & Heroic
As Alfredo, Piero Pretti cut an elegant figure as Alfredo. While most tenors might attempt to portray Alfredo as a tender, but shy young man, few manage to imbue these feelings in the actual portrayal, opting for a more potent vocal approach that while welcome, doesn’t distinguish the character or allow him much bandwidth to grow.
In his first entrance, Pretti’s Alfredo didn’t really seem like much to consider or marvel at. He was rather withdrawn, stiff, and when he sang, he seemed rather muted. There was nothing wrong with his singing. It was rather straightforward, bright in sound, and clear in diction. This was most noticeable in the Brindisi, where despite good projection and managing to hit all the notes, he never quite came off as overly exciting.
But then something slowly emerged over the course of the evening – Pretti’s Alfredo started to grow into a more assertive hero. It started with his first solo encounter with Violetta where the tenor’s musical interpretation was soft and delicate, imbuing him with a sense of hesitancy. But he slowly crescendoed to the pivotal “Ah sì, da un anno,” where he allowed his vice to truly projecting into the Met with all he had.
But then he backed off, the hesitancy returning throughout “Un dì felice.” He would start the phrases with a firmer sound before slowly dimunendoing toward their conclusions. Then he shift the dynamic toward greater strength before again, weaving toward a softer tone; for example, the opening “Un dì felice” was potent but by “mi balenaste inante,” he was floating his voice. It imbued the character with a romantic gentility while also exposing his timidness all the same. And what’s more, it pulled you in because every phrase was exquisite in its execution, providing a starting place for the duet and an eventual arrival as well for Oropesa whose singing went from brighter toned to more in line with the disembodied vocalism of her co-star.
The tender approach continued in his big aria “De’miei bollenti spiriti,” where he seemed to go in the opposite direction with the phrases, crescendoing through the expansive lines (“ella temprò col placido”) before capping it with a disembodied pianissimo (the C natural-D natural-E flat on “Dell’amor!”). Because of how attentive he was to these details of dynamics, you felt the arcs of the phrases more fully and as such, the phrasing came off as more elegant, but also exciting. Like with Oropesa, you felt the comfort of his technical security, so you focused more acutely on what he was doing with the musical lines and how they expressed the character. With Alfredo, this aria felt like a coming-of-age.
Of course, this also allowed for it to come more into direct conflict emotionally with the ensuing cabaletta “O mio rimorso.” While Pretti perhaps doesn’t have the voluminous presence to make this heroic aria truly explode with fury, he does have the vocal finesse and musicality to suit his characterization of Alfredo’s immaturity. Employing more accented phrasing and really leaning into his sound, you could sense Alfredo’s frustration and sense of powerlessness. The high C, which was beautifully executed and definitely rang in the hall, did seem a bit awkward in its placement, especially because Pretti walked about without engaging any of the musical lines leading up to it.
The aria has a very strange direction of having Alfredo put on his boots while he rages about being humiliated. It never works because Alfredo can’t possibly sing this challenging music while putting on the boots without being fully in character. It might have worked better had Pretti used the space allotted him during the orchestral coda prior to the high C to undertake this action instead of standing around looking like he was preparing for the high note. That is perhaps the lone moment where his immersion in the role came into question.
His interactions with Salsi throughout the latter’s arias were spot-on with the tenor moving about the room as if searching for a clue to Violeta’s whereabouts, all while glaring at his father. He proved even more hostile during the end of the second act where he really delivered some of his most intense and impassioned singing during “Ogni suo aver tal femmina,” the voice imposing in the theater and the high Gs, A flats, and A naturals particularly striking in their forcefulness.
But Pretti’s best vocal moments definitely came in the final act when he came to console Violetta. We talked about the deep intimacy between Salsi and Oropesa during their big duet, and that was rivaled by “Parigi, o cara,” where Pretti, lying beside the Oropesa’s sickly Violetta, wove some of the glorious pianissimi throughout the opening lines of the duet. The score calls for dolcissimo a mezza voce, though Pretti seemed to take this direction to the utmost extreme, his vocalism the most beautiful whisper of sound you could imagine in that hall. It sucked you into the intimacy of the space, a man gently consoling his love after time apart. Alfredo, who was practically begging Violetta for love at the start of the night, was here providing her with the comfort she needed.
As with Pretti’s other choices throughout the performance, singing so confidently with such softness allowed him a place to go with his voice, building up throughout the duet with more concerted sound. You could sense the energy and passion building between the two, adding to the tragic dimensions of the entire scene. Despite knowing what’s going to happen, seeing these two slowly but surely giving into the brightness of the moment makes it all the more crushing.
At the close of the duet, his singing retained the sense of firmness and confidence despite Violetta’s loss of hope, but by the end, when he finally realized the end was near, Pretti’s Alfredo, wandering about as a lost soul trying to find something to cling to, started really letting his voice take on a more impassioned and desperate manner, full of accents and even some subtle stylistic effects during “No, non morrai, non dirmelo” that he had strayed away from throughout the night.
Kevin Short was a notable presence as Dr. Grenvil, his heavy bass providing a sense of gravity and contrast to the more gentle singing of the other male voices. Dwayne Croft was a vicious Baron Douphol, notable for his accented vocal appearances, again, providing a very stark and compelling contrast to Pretti’s tender Alfredo.
Finally, Sarah Larsen was an active character as Flora (perhaps this productions most notable and welcome addition). She worked as a liaison between the two lovers during their highs and lows and seemed to always carry a smile on her face.
In a previous performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” earlier this season, I remarked that Sir Simon Rattle’s true genius was in managing to create a music experience that felt so tightly wound and united. And this was the same in this production with Bertrand de Billy in the pit. From the very first notes of the famed Prelude, this approach was very gentle and reverent. De Billy seemed intent on letting the music do the speaking without having to over-exaggerate accents for effect or favor one section in the orchestra over another. You always felt the balance between the strings and brass, especially in louder sections. Verdi often spoke of the “tinta” of an opera and one major aspect of “La Traviata” is the chamber-like feel of the strings which open the opera and then return at the start of Act three. As such, one often feels that the music is built from the string section upwards, with the violins, violas and celli always remaining the core the opera’s orchestral tinta. Where most conductors (at the Met especially) wind up giving the brass so much preponderance so as to give the orchestra a banda sound, de Billy merged the two disparate sectional colors every time the score called for a massive orchestra tutti. The result was a more grounded and consistent orchestral color throughout.
And while you look for a conductor to provide orchestra color and depth in a work like this, you know that his or her performance will live and die with the singers onstage. As noted, you often felt swept away by the intimacy of the singing between the major players and there is no doubt that de Billy was just as much a contributor to all this as anyone else. Just as you never felt any musical or technical insecurity from any of the main singers, you never felt anything but the fact that the maestro had the pulse of everyone on stage. He was there for every breath, downbeat, the music unfolding as if for the first time.
One mesmerizing example is the pezzo concertato at the Act two, scene two. During the repeated section wherein Violetta and Alfredo’s vocal lines finally meet one another alongside the orchestra (she sings “Dai rimmorsi, Dio ti salvi alor” while he interprets “Volea fuggirla”) over a crescendoing chorus, the conductor managed to create a glorious sense of build without any single piece in the massive tapestry overburdening the other. Oropesa’s vibrant voice was present as was Pretti’s and Salsi’s. And when the phrase came down to earth prior to repeating itself, the ensuing crescendo to the true climax of the ensemble was all the more riveting and organic. And it must be mentioned that he managed to do all this with rather quick tempi throughout the night; when he did provide room for more expansion, it actually felt intentional and impactful.
It is also worth noting how tightly he and his soloists hued to the score. This review has constantly made reference to how singers followed markings in the score to such religious degrees that the interpretations felt like nothing you’d heard in other contemporary readings. Tradition has a way of developing how artists approach works and in many cases, a lot of artists wind up following traditional markings and interpretations more closely than what is actually written in the score by the composer. The fact that the three main soloists were so observant of the score’s major and minor details speaks to De Billy’s own musical direction, which was incredibly appreciated. It was one of those nights where you realize how full of color and musical nuance this 167-year-old score is.
You’ll notice that Michael Mayer’s production has been barely been mentioned to this point. The bottom line is that the singers immersed you so much in their personal travails that the production seemed more like a necessary backdrop. Moreover, there seemed to be some serious reflection about certain problematic elements from last year’s opening run that were scaled back to offer less distraction from the main singers. For example, the chorus’ cartoonish choreography in the opening act has essentially been abandoned and Germont’s daughter, who makes a grand entrance right before “Pura sicomme un angelo,” is ushered off the stage when Violetta kicks off “Non sapette quale affetto.” This is obviously greatly appreciated though these compromises are little more than bandaids because at the end of the day, these issues, while minimized, remain parts of the mise-en-scène and are still unavoidable. Since this production seems to be a major investment for the Met in the long-term, one might hope that the company commit fully to the scaling back of such distractions by eschewing Germont’s daughter altogether and recreating new costumes for the chorus members with milder color schemes that don’t feel so completely out of place with the rest of production’s aesthetic. Germont also needs a wig or something so he doesn’t look like Alfredo’s brother. As for the bed and the “Samson et Dalila” choreography…
In any case, the truth of the matter is that when you walk away from this performance you probably won’t remember any of those dramatically questionable elements. You’ll only remember the vocal transcendence of Lisette Oropesa and the gloriously idiomatic interpretations of Luca Salsi and Piero Pretti, all brought together by the gentle touch of Betrand de Billy.