Salzburg's hailed production returns to the Met starring the ravishing Natalie Dessay.
Decker's production premiered in 2005 in Salzburg to rave reviews in part due to its wonderful cast led by Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. The production was recorded and released on DVD and CD, becoming one of the most popular recordings of La Traviata in recent years. It also launched the two stars to stardom. The Netherlands Opera opened the production with Marina Poplavskaya, hoping for the same results. The production was once again hailed for its dramatic power. However it did not bring Poplavskaya to the same stardom. Last year Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager opened the production looking to make La Traviata a more theatrical experience. However he had hoped to bring the original cast Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Netrebko withdrew from the production stating that she did not want to compete with her DVD and that "the production was too specific to sing again." Villazon later withdrew due to vocal troubles. The result was a less starry cast which included Poplavskaya, Polenzani and Andres Dobber and a hailed production. Critics called the production an "involving theatrical experience that belongs at the Met." They also hailed Decker for developing vulnerable and revealing portrayals. The production is a minimalist one made up of a curved blue-white wall. In some scenes there is a red couch and in all scenes there is a huge clock representing that Violetta's time is running out. Dr.Grenvil is seen throughout the production following Violetta and representing death.The costumes are modern. Decker's emphasis on Violetta is seen as she wears a bright red dress that stands out from the rest of the chorus and characters. In addition, Violetta is the only woman in the whole show. The chorus and female characters, such as Flora, are all dressed in suits. Decker's approach is to go away from all the lavish quality one is used to in La Traviata and goes for all the raw elements. Violetta is no longer a high class woman and instead is a straight out prostitute. Alfredo is not a refined young man. Instead he is an emotionally distraught character. Germont is the only character who is more or less the same. Having seen the production last year I was very disappointed. After the Salzburg DVD, Poplavskaya and Polenzani's performances seemed lacking in the emotional depth that was so natural and compelling in Netrebko and Villazon's performance. However, I would like to add that unlike most critics, I am no fan of this production. My main problem is with Decker's approach to the character of Violetta. Making her a common prostitute deprives her of the dignity that Verdi worked so hard to integrate and preserve in this most intimate of operas. The emphasis on Violetta being a sexual creature in the first act makes it impossible to perceive any sign of the dying woman. Decker compensates by shoving the clock in our face for the duration of the opera to remind us that this is an opera about death. Which brings me to the second problem with this production. For Decker, symbols are the most important aspect of his direction. The clock, the doctor, the flowers, the barren stage, the red dress, the attire, etc. I have nothing against a director trying to bring new insight into a work. However, Decker's preoccupation with symbols seems like a move more at home in a Wagner opera rather than one of Verdi's. Characters and their emotions were always Verdi's main concern in his operas. Philosophical/Symbolic discourse never really played a role in his ouevre. He often even sacrificed dramatic logic in favor of emotional circumstances. While their is no real dramatic sacrifice in Traviata, Verdi's attention to character is never more detailed than in this work. Decker's obsession with symbols puts the characters and their emotions as second in importance, often leaving one cold after a performance of this production. UNLESS...one has a tremendous cast of singing actors that have the emotional power to compensate in this up-hill battle. Netrebko-Villazon is one example of this sort of success. Last years duo portrayed how difficult it truly is.
Natalie Dessay brings her acting abilities to the role of Violetta in Willy Decker's ambitious production. Dessay made her role debut in 2009 at the Santa Fe opera to rave reviews and was hailed for her "gut-wrenching theatricality, energy and physicality. Critics hailed her natural phrasing in the arias like "Addio del passato" and her delicacy in making Violetta's character fragile. However she was criticized for her her small voice and for being unable to fill the the auditorium. In addition to that her low notes were problematic and her "amami alfredo" was not moving. Since her role debut 2 years have passed and Dessay has gone through surgery in her vocal cords. Last year when she returned to the Met after a year of vocal rest Dessay's voice was no longer as flexible and no longer as sweet. Instead it was coarse. Her high notes were no longer pure, sounding mostly forced and screechy. As Dessay said in an interview at the Lucia HD performance, she stated that last years run may be her last for the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. This is probably an indication of where Dessay wants to go with the remaining part of her career. This year Dessay returns to the role of Traviata after a run at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. During this run of performances her second in the role of Violetta, critics hailed her once again for her acting abilities and called her a "superb dramatic actress." However they also remarked that Dessay will most likely not make a habit of this role as her low notes are problematic. However Dessay will sing her third run of the role at the Met this year. Willy Decker's stark production is going to allow Dessay all the liberties in terms of acting that she is used to as she will have the opportunity to jump, dance, run and crawl all over the ground. Violetta never leaves the stage in this production so Dessay will have the chance to show herself off as an actress. The problem here lies in her singing. The Met is a huge house, bigger than the other two theaters Dessay has sang the role in. While her voice is able to fill the auditorium in roles like Lucia and Marie in La Fille du Regiment, she will have a harder time with Violetta. Verdi's orchestration is heavier than in most of the other roles she sings and if she has already had trouble in the smaller houses Dessay's job will be much harder here at the Met.
Matthew Polenzani returns to the role of Alfredo. Polenzani's lyric tenor is elegant and beautiful. Polenzani knows how to phrase the music and sing with integrity. When he sang last year in this production he was hailed for communicating Alfredo's suffering and jealousy as well as for his ardent singing.
However as much as Polenzani has a beautiful voice, I believe that his voice is best suited for Mozart and the Bel-Canto repertoire. His voice is much to sweet and small for Verdi's orchestration and this is demonstrated in his singing. Polenzani never suffers from breath control issues when singing the light repertoire. But when he sings Verdi, Polenzani sounds strained and out of breath. It may be the production which also requires him to run around like crazy. I have heard Polenzani numerous times in the Verdi repertoire and he has never convinced me.
Dimitri Hvorostovsky takes on yet another Verdi role, this time one that he has sung for over 10 years. The last time Hvorostovsky sang the role was in 2010 at the Royal Opera House in which critics hailed him for his "implacable, pitiless patrician as Alfredo’s stern father and for singing with sophistication." Two seasons have passed since this run and as I stated in my Ernani preview Hvorostovsky's timbre has become dry and coarse. While I am not confident in his Don Carlo, I believe that Hvorostovsky still has the potential to sing beautifully in the role of Germont.
La Traviata will never be the same again as Willy Decker's production is stark and fastidious to look at. The cast is uneven as they are not best suited for the Verdian repertoire. As a result while this may be an HD transmission I believe that this revival of La Traviata will be nothing special.
This will be part of the Live in HD series at the Met.