La Traviata: Oh Gioia!!!

Yoncheva and Fabiano, photo @ Marty Sohl

The Willy Decker production of La Traviata opened at the Met in 2010. I saw the first cast and every revival since. That's a lot of little red dresses. All the Violettas I've seen brought something special to the role. However I had never experienced a complete Traviata -- one where ALL the singers came together to create an unforgettable, moving experience. Until last night, that is.

First of all, great credit must be given to Nelson Martinez, who stepped in for an ailing Thomas Hampson with only a few hours notice. Martinez got a warm and deserved ovation at the end of the evening. His is a sonorous, rich, well-produced baritone with no troubles negotiating the role. His approach was direct and uncomplicated -- Papa Germont was a stolid, stodgy man who wanted to protect his family.  He sang most of the Act Two duet with Violetta in a clipped way, as if he really didn't know what to do with her torrent of emotions. "Di provenza il mar" earned a huge hand from the audience. What a voice, and I feel so lucky to have witnessed his triumph. So yes, there are baritones other than Placido Domingo and Zeljicko Lucic if the Met is recruiting.

Yoncheva, photo @ Marty Sohl
Sonya Yoncheva is the most complete, satisfying Violetta since Angela Gheorghiu. This is not to say she was perfect. "Sempre libera" was marred by some labored coloratura and a shrill upper register. The glory of Yoncheva is not her upper register, but rather the core of her voice. It's a soft-grained voice that nevertheless has enough power to float over the orchestra and ensemble and flood the auditorium with waves of sound. "Amami Alfredo" and the great Act Two concertato had her voice soaring. The final act was a master class of vocal control -- she brought her voice to a threadbare whisper before expiring with a huge, life-affirming "Oh gioia." The timbre of her voice is just so perfect for this role -- the dusky color of the voice can sound alternately sultry and melancholy.

Her interpretation was very different from the other Violettas I've seen in this production -- she was more languorous and world-weary than most Violettas. She wasn't manic and overeager to squeeze every ounce of hard-partying into her short lifespan. But with her bedroom eyes and indifferent manner, one understood why men pursued her -- she was undeniably the sexiest Violetta I've ever seen.  Of course it helps that, like the real life Marie Duplessis, she has raven hair, pale skin and is very beautiful woman. Run, don't walk to see this magnificent soprano.

Michael Fabiano's Alfredo is the first one who seems entirely comfortable with this production -- other Alfredos have always looked diffident and embarrassed when asked to cavort in boxers in the first scene of Act Two, and uncomfortable during the ugly scene at the Flora's party when Alfredo shoves money up Violetta's legs. Not Fabiano. He performed all the stage business with relish. Fabiano's natural intensity worked well, as did his muscular, handsome tenor voice. His voice is not the usual slender lyric tenor we often get for Alfredo. A few quibbles -- I wish he'd use more dynamics. He's one of those singers who loves forte. I also wish he wouldn't drop out so much in "O mio rimorso" just to hit a high note (listen to the YT clip below). But again, the intensity of the performance, the level of engagement and chemistry he has with Yoncheva, all make him the most complete Alfredo I've ever seen live.

The conductor Nicola Luisotti led an erratic account of the score from the pit. At times he sounded like he was trying to break some sort of record for the fastest La Traviata. But in Act Three he became so lugubrious and labored that both Yoncheva and Fabiano had trouble following his dirge-like tempi during "Parigi o cara." Papa Germont got one verse of the cabaletta, and Violetta got to sing both verses of "Addio del passato" but otherwise all the standard cuts were taken, including the big cuts in "Parigi o cara" and "Gran dio." Disappointing.

The Willy Decker production has by now lost most of its shock value. It's being retired after this season. It's a deliberately clinical take on the opera. The white background suggests a hospital ward, and the clock symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. But with Yoncheva, Fabiano and Martinez last night it became blood-and-guts theater. It was a phenomenal night at the opera. Really, GO SEE IT. If you don't live around New York, GO SEE THE HD. You won't regret it. The next time you get a Violetta/Alfredo pairing this dynamic might be never.


  1. Now I definitely want to see it. Thanks for the heads-up. - KenT.

  2. Saw the 1K performance, agree with all. HATE the production, except that the grain silo they're singing in is great for projection. Why are all the women dressed as men? Bit of a sausage fest. And why does Alfredo talk about Violetta as though she's not in the room, when she is? Gah.

  3. Thanks for this review. heading to the Met in HD broadcast this afternoon. I've always loved the Salzburg DVD and I am looking forward to seeing a new performance on the big screen. I just found your blog by searching for this Decker Traviata, and I will be back for more. Thanks for your insights!


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