Met Traviata: Something Old, Something New, Many Things Borrowed ...

Violetta on her deathbed, photo @ Jonathan Tichler

The Michael Mayer production of La Traviata ushered in a new era at the Metropolitan Opera: it was the first official assignment of new Met musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was fast-tracked to the position after James Levine was fired earlier this year. The opening night of Traviata (on December 4) had YNS pelted with confetti and the orchestra was brought onstage to salute the new boss.

But in many ways Mayer's production is also bringing back the old: the spartan, clincial Willy Decker production (otherwise known as the Clock Production) that premiered in 2010 and was played more than 50 times with many different Violettas donning the little red dress (including Diana Damrau in 2013) was shelved in favor of a production that mostly plays it safe and traditional. Christine Jones' set and Susan Hilferty's costume place the opera in the 1850's-ish era, with the women wearing big hoop skirts. Violetta's boudoir is decorated with the sort of upper-class luxuries that a high-class courtesan in Paris might have fancied: a baby grand piano, an ornate upholstered bed, an antique desk, colorful draped curtains, champagne everywhere.

Something blue: Florez in a bright blue jacket, photo @ Jonathan Tichler
Even the "new" parts of the production are borrowed from past productions: this Traviata is one of those "Violetta's flashback" deals (first done in a production for Maria Callas), and the unit set changes according to "seasons": in the opening scene it is spring, the idyllic time with Alfredo in the countryside is summer, Germont's interference and Violetta's return to her old life is fall, and of course the last act is winter. To drive home the point, there is even gentle snowfall as Violetta breathes her last. When the elder Germont sings of his "pura siccone un angelo" daughter, a mute daughter is actually brought onstage to demonstrate the potential calamity the Germont family faces. I thought the mute daughter was annoying considering her presence was very inconsistent. Why was she present at the country house during the Germont/Violetta confrontation scene but not in the subsequent scene between Germont pere and Alfredo? But this is basically a traditional production. All the blocking and stage business is familiar. So something old, something new, something borrowed, and ... there is even something blue -- Alfredo's bright blue dinner jacket in Act One.

Think this sounds safe and boring and thus not worth seeing? Well throw away those reservations. I thought the Decker production was stimulating and thought-provoking, but as the curtain fell tonight and the audience around me was sobbing I realized the biggest limitation of the Decker production: it was not moving. The Alfredo/Violetta relationship as presented by Decker was so cold and cynical that it was hard to feel anything but contempt for Alfredo. In the Decker production he is a hypocritical brute who actually physically shoves money up Violetta's crotch. Both Germont and Alfredo are misogynistic villains in the Decker production. Verdi, however, wrote humanity and shades of gray into every character. Mayer's production might have brought back the crinolines, but it also brought back the romance to Verdi's opera. With Decker's concept it was only about Violetta's suffering. In this more traditional production everyone suffers, and that makes all the difference in the world. The balance is restored.

Damrau and Floréz, photo @ Jonathan Tichler
I saw Damrau in the Decker production and I remember her playing Violetta as a hard businesswoman. Tonight she was all melting vulnerability. When she expired in a white nightgown I was reminded of those MGM weepies. Her voice in 2013 was also stronger and more robust. She is now five years older and like many a lyric coloratura she is losing the "coloratura" part of her voice. Her first act was the weakest -- "Un di felice" was marred by over-reliance on glottal attacks and some approximate pitches. The big scena of "Ah fors'e lui/"Sempre libera" is now not really a comfortable sing for Damrau. She struggled with breath control, the high notes, the low notes, the coloratura, the enunciation. It was almost a relief that she eschewed the E-flat that many Violettas interpolate to end the scene.

As might be expected, her second and third acts were much stronger. Her light, bright timbre doesn't have that much inherent color to suggest the tragedy and sadness of Violetta's life. Unlike, say, Maria Callas or in more modern times Angela Gheorghiu, Damrau can't just open her mouth, sing, and break your heart. For that reason she's not in that top tier of Violettas. But she's still very good -- she did some lovely soft singing in the long duet with Germont in Act 2, "Amami Alfredo" was heartfelt, her voice bloomed well in the great concertato that ends Flora's party, and "Addio del passato" was sensitively sung with a lovely floated high A at the end. Her Violetta is refreshingly unpretentious -- there's a simplicity and straightforwardness to Damrau's portrayal that is endearing and suits her.

Here's a comparison of her and Sonya Yoncheva. Yoncheva has the darker, more alluring timbre and with her dark locks more resembles the real-life Marie Duplessis. But her acting is studied and mannered in a way Damrau's is not. (By the way Yoncheva is a wonderful Violetta -- maybe my favorite Violetta to don Decker's red dress.)

Floréz as Alfredo, photo @ Jonathan Tichler
Another reason to be grateful for the Mayer production is that I could not imagine Juan Diego Flórez's sweet, sensitive Alfredo in the Decker production. The Peruvian tenor is making his return to the Met after a three year absence. Alfredo is not a perfect fit for his voice. His voice lives and shines in the upper stratosphere, and Alfredo has few opportunities for Floréz to scale those heights. He does interpolate a high C at the end of "O mio rimorso." However he is one of the most appealing, endearing Alfredo's I've ever seen. Even though he's in his mid-40's and has been singing in major houses for almost 25 years he's still believably boyish. It helps that although Floréz's voice is not large, and occasionally got drowned out by the heavier Verdian orchestra, the tenor is a shrewd manager of his resources. Floréz really knows how to project the sound,  how to color his voice for maximum expressiveness, and how to phrase and interpret this music. His skill in legato set him apart from everyone else onstage -- I did wish for more horsepower in the confrontation scene at Flora's but overall when he was singing I just focused on the way one note melted into the next and the next, and thus made Alfredo an appealing lover. When he sang "Un di felice, eterea" you believe that he was really remembering the day he first laid eyes on Violetta. "Parigi o cara" was gorgeous. No pushing, no strain, just putting the "bel" back in "bel canto."

Here is a comparison of Floréz and Fabiano, who was the last Alfredo in the Decker production. Fabiano's voice is enormous compared to Floréz, and probably a better overall fit for Verdi. But if I was a courtesan in 1850's Paris dying of an incurable disease I think I'd rather have Floréz serenade me on my deathbed.

Papa Germont (Quinn Kelsey) with his daughter, photo @ Jonathan Tichler
Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont had a complete triumph. He is the Verdi baritone everyone's been dreaming for ever since the days of Leonard Warren/Robert Merrill/Ettore Bastianini. His voice is cavernous with a hint of a snarl that makes him such a natural fit for the brusque Germont. "Di provenza il mar" garnered the loudest ovation of the night.  My only caveat: I don't hear much legato in his singing. For Germont he can get away with it but in other Verdian roles, not so much. Nevertheless Kelsey is by any standard an impressive voice. His portrayal was that of a rather coarse country gentleman -- he eschewed the smooth manners and silky manipulativeness of, say, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Placido Domingo (who will be singing Germont in the spring). This Germont had a purpose and he was straightforward about it. One weakness of last night's performance: in past productions there's usually a lot more interaction between Alfredo and his father -- often a slap or hug. In this production there wasn't much rapport between Kelsey and Floréz.

Some very bad dancing, photo @ Jonathan Tichler
The supporting cast was mostly fine. Veteran Dwayne Croft brought a welcome gravitas to Baron Douphol, Maria Zifchak was as usual solid as Annina, and Kevin Short distinguished himself as Dr. Grenvil with a rich, sonorous bass-baritone voice. On the other hand I wish the dancers at Flora's ball had: 1) been better; 2) been given better choreography. Lorin Latarro's choreography was the low-point of the evening -- an odd mix of ballet and burlesque, but somehow both unfun and unsexy at the same time. I can't imagine Flora's place being that popular if they had to watch such insipid dancing at her parties. I wish Austin McCormick of Company XIV who choreographed both the Samson et Dalila and Rusalka at the Met was brought in. He specializes in period burlesque choreography.

On the musical side Yannick Nézet-Séguin led a solid if not revelatory performance. I appreciated the way he scaled back the orchestra for the opera's more intimate moments, and how his tempi were leisurely without being indulgent. However he took a number of "standard" performance cuts that were disappointing: the second verses of "Ah fors'e lui, "O mio rimorso" and Germont's cabaletta all gone, "Parigi o cara" also sung with the typical cut. And truth be told, there wasn't that much to distinguish his rendition. But it was professional, and for most nights at the Met that's good enough.

The house was sold out -- even the score desk boxes were occupied. I ran into an old colleague who was with her mother. She's an opera fan but probably not a fanatic. At the end of the performance I caught up with her and she and her mother loved every moment. As opposed to the Decker production this is a La Traviata designed to appeal to the general opera going public, and there's nothing wrong with that. Verdi always wanted his operas to be big hits.

I mean, which do you prefer? I think both productions have their value.


  1. I haven't seen this yet, but I loved the Willy Decker production. Thanks for a very insightful review, Ivy, as always!

    1. I think you'll enjoy it. The good thing about the Decker production was that maybe the best version of all (the netrebko/villazon) was preserved for posterity. So we can revisit it whenever we want!

    2. Yes, I like Decker production too, I think it's very smart! I have DVD with Netrebko/Villazon. But I'm a Florez fan and thanks of good that he made a success in this role ,not very suitable for his voice! Thank you for your review !Missis D.D has not a voice for the role of Violetta!

  2. So how do we reconcile the director's "four seasons" concept with the fact that Acts II and III take place on the same day/night ?

    1. It's a flashback so the seasons are more in Violetta's mind?

  3. Your reviews are always beautifully written with your thoughts and opinions clearly laid out.
    My only disagreement with your Traviata review is that I don't think Quinn Kelsey is the second coming of Warren, Merrill, and Bastianaini for the very reason you mention... he has no legato!! Besides their gorgeous voices, the three baritones you mention reveled in their legato singing. I will say this, Kelsey is a true baritone and provides relief from Domingo.

  4. What a thoughtful, well written and unbiased review. I miss you on Parterre!

    1. Thanks! Unfortunately I've been banned from Parterre so ...

  5. Clearly you saw the same Traviata I saw this week in Encore. Loved Damrau's Violetta, was completely won over by Juan Diego as Alfredo, and appreciate the nuance of Quinn Kelsey's singing. Kelsey looks like a stevadore but sings like someone on his way to being a gifted Verdi baritone. His Il balen holds up well as contrasted with Dima's. It's there in the Met website's DISCOVER/videos. The careful stage direction, echoing Yannick's careful dynamics in the orchestra . . . sublime!!!


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