|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|
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|
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|
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|
|Some very bad dancing, photo @ Jonathan Tichler|
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.