Even a Booer Can't Wake Up Bland, Efficient Met Traviata

La Traviata, photo @ Marty Sohl
A champagne flute was thrown across the stage. The soprano twirled defiantly. She glowered and smirked at the audience. Then she launched into "Sempre libera" and capped the aria with an interpolated E-flat. Curtain comes down. Audience is mildly appreciative, except for one guy, who booed loudly from the E-flat to the part where audience members make that mad dash to the restroom.

I was puzzled because there was nothing to boo about. In fact I couldn't imagine generating strong feelings either way about the Met's revival of La Traviata. The evening was from curtain to curtain blandly efficient. No one was really terrible, but there just wasn't anything interesting happening.

Aleksandra Kurzak as Violetta, photo @ Marty Sohl
Leadership starts in the pit and conductor Karel Mark Chicon conducted as if he had one goal in mind: to make sure everyone was home by 11:00. He took every single "traditional" cut there was to take -- Germont's cabaletta, the second verses of "Ah, fors' è lui" and "Addio del passato," the second stanza in "Parigi o cara" were all gone. This reading of La Traviata got us from point A to point B and that was it.

As the tragic courtesan Violetta Aleksandra Kurzak was vocally beyond reproach, a few wiry high notes aside. Her voice is unusually dark, full and large for a lyric soprano. She has excellent coloratura technique and thus was one of the rare sopranos who was equally at home in the roulades of "Sempre libera" and the third act death scene. Kurzak is also a musical singer -- beautiful sense of dynamics and rhythm, clearly articulated trills, pointed diction. "Addio del passato" ended with a exquisitely tapered high A. I'd be hard-pressed to remember the last time I heard a Violetta that was so easy on the ears. Actually I can -- it was Angela Gheorghiu, the Mrs. Alagna before Kurzak became Mrs. Alagna.

Popov and Kurzak, photo @ Marty Sohl
Despite the vocal mastery of the role there was not anything vulnerable about Kurzak's Violetta. Maybe it was the lack of rehearsal, maybe it's that Michael Mayer's production emphasizes the surface elements of the opera. But Kurzak never seemed more than mildly perturbed by anything happening to her. Exhibit A: in the great concertato that ends Act Two many Violettas can tear your heart out with a threadbare voice. They do it with body language that mirrors the plaintive lines of Verdi's music. Kurzak instead possessed this sort of strong, determined Rosie-the-Riveter energy. Even her coughing sounded healthy. Kurzak is a wonderful singer. This role however needs someone with a larger-than-life tragic aura. Garbo. Callas. And, er, well, Gheorghiu.

Popov as Alfredo, photo @ Marty Sohl
The Alfredo was tenor Dmytro Popov, whom I had never heard before. He opened his mouth and I thought: "tenor who has outgrown Alfredo." He has a thick, leathery, medium-sized voice. There was no tenderness to this Alfredo and no youthful ardor either. He and Kurzak had anti-chemistry. "Un dì, felice" was painfully out-of-sync with Kurzak AND out-of-tune. His acting was stiff and un-involved -- the big moment of Alfredo throwing the money at Violetta went for nothing as Popov exuded boredom, not anger. I heard the opening night livestream and matinee broadcast where Popov went for a strained interpolated high C in "O mio rimorso" after a huge dropout. Last night he decided to sing more bars of music without the high C. Good idea.

Quinn Kelsey, photo @ Marty Sohl
Quinn Kelsey (Germont) was a disappointment. Kelsey is a baritone with dark, enormous voice and a sinister, menacing stage presence. However, Kelsey's voice is stiff and has a tendency towards hoarseness. He and legato are not friends. And maybe this is an interpretive choice but this Germont was flat-out annoying. Hectoring and priggish, no shades of gray in a character that Verdi calibrated to be both well-meaning and cruel. I've heard Kelsey in a number of roles now and nuance and shading just aren't in his toolbox.

Sara Mearns and company, photo @ Marty Sohl
In fact the strongest energy of the night came from the party scene matadors. The charismatic New York City Ballet dancer Sara Mearns threw herself into the horrible choreography by Lorin Latarro -- she kicked, she flipped, she tossed her hair, and the end result was we finally had an idea of what the Parisian demimondaine life was like -- crude people doing crude things in fancy clothes and luxurious surroundings.

Michael Mayer's production was much-derided by both critics and the public alike for its gaudy look. The production does have some irritating qualities -- the ever-present bed downstage center which never gets moved even for the party scene means that  performers spend most of their time either flailing on the bed or avoiding the bed. Germont's mute daughter is another directorial conceit that didn't work. However the biggest weakness of this production is that one year later it's clear that performers are left to their own devices. Revival stage director Sarah Ina Meyers doesn't seem to have coached beyond "enter here, exit there." If the Met cast Traviata with three strong, expressive singers it could work. Everyone in the audience would probably cry. But with last night's cast the audience booer/heckler was the most passionate "singer" of the night.


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