La Traviata

La Traviata
Metropolitan Opera
April 14, 2012 (matinee)

I recently re-watched a few Elia Kazan movies and thought that objectively, they were quite wretched. His cinematography was amateurish compared to other directors. He favored bombastic, irritating soundtracks. His story-lines and symbolism mostly had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And he totally lacked any sense of humor.

What made the films classics, then? Well, I think mostly it was his ability to draw performances from actors in a way I can only describe as truly empathetic. I still felt Terry Malloy's pain on the fourth or fifth viewing of On the Waterfront, and I felt it so much that I could ignore the movie's stomach-churning "message." The scene in which Brando begged Eva Marie-Saint to drink a beer was still one of the most sensitive love scenes in cinema. Vivien Leigh, who in many movies seemed rather arch and affected, became a  heartbreakingly sensitive Blanche under Kazan's direction. Again, I felt her pain.

Natalie Dessay is a singer/performer with that special ability to make the audience empathize with her, with her character, with the music, with the opera. Nowhere was that more evident than today's performance of La Traviata. From the moment she stepped onstage to the final drop of the curtain, Dessay was absolutely heartbreaking. She conveyed a sense of frailty and doom with every gesture, every note she sang.

The Willy Decker production is by now familiar to most opera audiences, and I saw it last year with the frighteningly chilly Marina Poplavskaya. I predicted that Dessay would make the production practically a different opera, and I was right. The blocking was similar, but whereas Poplavskaya was regal, defiant, even cold, Dessay was like a frightened puppy. Her big saucer-like eyes projected the character's fear and misery to a 4,000 seat auditorium. She sang "Ah forse lui" curled up in the fetal position, but what's more, she swelled her voice from a mere thread of sound to a warm, robust forte on the words "Ah, quell amor," before reducing it again to a wispy thread, and it was an unforgettable effect. For a brief moment, this Violetta felt some hope, and then she lost it again.  Another moment was the concertato at the end of Act Two. She has a way of coloring "Alfredo, Alfredo" so that it sounded like she was singing to him and only him. I can't describe it except it's the way lovers will talk to each other in a very different voice than the way they talk to the rest of the world. After sounding truly ill during most of Act Three, her voice almost miraculously recovered, the way Violetta feverishly believes, in the final "Oh gioia." She knew again exactly when and how to swell her voice in a crescendo before expiring.

Acting wise, there wasn't a single false note. What was remarkable was how chaste and innocent Dessay made this Violetta. She rejected the 7 inch heels worn by Poplavskaya and instead wore small kittenish heels. This Violetta seemed too tired and sick to even be bold and seductive. It reminded me of the letter the actual Marie Duplessis wrote to Franz Liszt: “I shall not live; I am an odd girl and I shan’t be able to hold on to this life which I don’t know how not to lead and that I can equally no longer endure. Take me, take me anywhere you like; I shan’t bother you. I sleep all day; in the evening you can let me go to the theatre; and at night you can do with me what you will!” The world-weariness, the touching, feminine vulnerability of Duplessis's letter, Dessay possessed it in spades. The Decker production has Alfredo shoving dollar bills up Violetta's legs during their confrontation, and Dessay frantically tried to close them before finally crumpling on the clock like a rag doll.  I've seen many Violettas, some with very sumptuous voices. But this kind of understanding of the role can't be practiced or rehearsed -- it's something a performer either has or doesn't have.

Having said that, I don't think I will ever see a Natalie Dessay performance again, because for all her deep understanding of the opera, of the character, of the music, what she painfully lacks at this point in her career is an actual voice. It repeatedly fails her -- high notes are shrill squeaks (reminds me of late-in-the-day Callas), and sometimes she opens her mouth and practically no sound comes out at all. "Sempre libera" made my ears bleed. That she went for the unwritten Eb at the end was gutsy but the actual note was painful to hear. "Addio del passato" was another moment when her voice totally failed her -- she sang both verses and seemed to stop deliberately between the verses just to prepare herself, but the sound that came out was thin, quavery, weak. There's a unsteady quality to her singing now that borders on a wobble. She can rally at some crucial moments and there are moments when she sounds like "old Natalie," but overall it's clear that this is a great artist without a voice. It was so sad to see and hear.

Matthew Polenzani reprised his role of Alfredo, and bless his heart, I just don't think this is the right role for him. Or maybe this is really the wrong production of Traviata for him. Decker's vision of Alfredo is of a crude hothead, as I said, the type who would shove dollar bills up Violetta's legs. That is not Polenzani and he seemed terminally uncomfortable with the stage directions. He did them, but stiffly and awkwardly. His voice sounds great though -- he was like Dessay's polar opposite. Dramatically wrong but vocally right.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky got a big ovation as Germont but I thought this was one of the poorer performances I've seen him give. It felt very phoned in, and also (weirdly) very out of sync musically with the rest of the cast. For instance, in the long duet in Act Two with Violetta, there were multiple times he and the conductor (Fabio Luisi) were completely uncoordinated. Also it was very unusual for this usually elegant singer to sound so shouty and barky.

Fabio Luisi was the conductor, and I suppose all those Rings left him with little rehearsal time for La Traviata, because as I said, there were coordination problems between him and the singers, and he conducted the opera as if on xanax. Very slow, sluggish, no real feel for the opera.


  1. Luisi slow? Have you seen the actual performance? Dessay was a mess, Polenzani outstanding, and by that dumb and inconsistent staging no wonder there were coordination problems, and for the slow tempo of the singer in the recits (deliberately wanted by Decker - typical german trash) you can't blame the conductor, right there he only can go with the singers. But the gambling scene was the fastest I've ever heard (and I heard at least 200 Traviata performances at the Met and in other Houses)... And such beautiful preludes as today by Luisi I only heard under Kleiber.
    Robert Husher

  2. How could you write such terrible things about Dmitri Hvorostovsky?! A phony?! oohhh Come'on! He was just great!!! singing ( if it wasn't for that note in DiProvenza) and acting!!!

  3. I completely agree about the lack of coordination with the singers today. Not quite as bad as it was Tuesday night, but not good. And I have to believe this chorus could sing Traviata in their sleep. So, I have to think the conductor either had too little rehearsal or is doing too many performances this month to give each it's fair shake. That bothered me more than anyone person's singing. Unlike some, I love this production and was very happy in my sold out cinema.

  4. Well I like the production too. I think the coordination problems might also be due to the fact that Luisi is conducting basically every night for the rest of the season. All the Rings, Manons, and Traviatas. Still, the huge problems between him and Hvorostovsky were surprising.

  5. I listened to the broadcast and have to agree with your review. I don't care for this production and seeing Popsy once last season was enough for me, but if this HD makes it to PBS this summer, or on the Met Plaza, I'd be interested in seeing it. I remember hearing Dessay in Ariadne in the 1990s at the Met - she was the brightest new star in the firmament, and it wasn't that long ago. I would love to see her transition to acting when she retires and hope that she will stop singing for a bit to rest and heal. It was upsetting listening to her today even though she was as expressive as ever over the airwaves.

    Is it possible that Luisi is conducting that many performances for the rest of the season? I will have to look that up - it seems quite unfair, unless he is a masochist who enjoys pushing himself to the limit.

    The conductor, orchestra and the chorus seem to be suffering from end-of-season fatigue - I have never heard such sloppy singing and playing from the brass and even the strings as I have recently. The brass section in particular have had some rough moments from the beginning of the season, and I wonder what's going on there.

  6. Beautifuly written, thank you! And I totally agree with your comment.

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  8. Saw it last night and hated it so much I walked out in the middle of the 2nd act. Dessay withdrew after the first, she was replaced by Hong

  9. "This kind of understanding of the role can't be practiced or rehearsed -- it's something a performer either has or doesn't have."

    If that were true, then Dessay would have been at her peak starting at the beginning of her career, and would not have become a better actress as time went on. But of course she has, because she has more experience (practice, training), and because practice and training makes people better. If this can't be taught, you can't use Dessay to prove that, because she studied at Bordeaux Conservatoire and Paris Opéra's Ecole d'Art Lyrique.

    I agree that it is very "sad to see and hear", but people forget that, along with acting classes, there is plenty of vocal instruction available to anyone who can afford it. If she didn't have the self-awareness to prevent her current (probably irreversible) condition, then we should shift blame to the many casting directors, conductors, and coaches - any of whom could have taken 20 seconds to say "I am worried about your vocal health, and I think you should find a teacher."


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