Rarely has any performance elicited such heated altercation as this version of Verdi's La Traviata that closed the Met Opera's 2011-2012 HD Movie season. You either loved it or hated it with venom!
Personally, I am a bit tired of trying to defend this contemporary, highly stylized, somewhat surrealistic production, simply by trying to accept the Director Willy Decker's concepts and praising the Met for sticking out its neck once again. I find it troublesome to defend because I think it simply did not work.
Originally premiered at Salzburg, this production was picked up by the Met in 2010 and was now featured as a showpiece for Natalie Dessay, the delightful, highly talented French soprano, heralded as one of today's most successful singing-actresses. Everyone adored her as La Fille du Regiment. Not everyone decided she was a plausible La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) by a long shot.
Non-opera lovers may find it amusing that the controversy truly erupted into shouting matches pro and con. Possibly, we who take this marvelous art form seriously, are sublimating our frustrations and are substituting them for Romney/Obama arguments.
But then, that controversy will end this Fall. The question of La Traviata is steeped in history and most probably will be around for as long as opera is performed.
It all started with a novel and then a play, La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas fils (1824-1895.) It is supposedly based on his torrid affair with a certain courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who died lamentably at the age of 23. (Undoubtedly you know the story of the consumptive prostitute who gives up her opulent Parisian life for true love, only to have to give that up, unselfishly, to preserve the honor of her lover's family. Truth wills out, but too late, as she succumbs in his arms.)
Maybe you saw one version of this tragedy as "Camille," the 1936 Greta Garbo movie frequently shown on TCM.
Verdi (1813-1901) chose the Dumas play as the basis for his 18th out of 28 operas and it premiered in Venice in 1853 a minor flop. But even then, this opera that has become a world-wide super favorite, faced controversy. Venice's censors did not approve of the shocking content of the then-contemporary libretto and demanded it be set in "Paris and its environs, circa 1700." This persisted until 1866 when it was finally permitted to be set in the 19th Century. And there has been no stopping it ever since. It has been given myriad stagings that most usually lead to tears and exuberant cheers from excited audiences.
Frankly, not often from me. I absolutely love late Verdi operas, but consider the use of lead-in oom-pa-pahs and great tragic arias set in three-quarter time as unworthy of the sentiment they are to convey. Thus I stand as a heretic, about worshipping this so widely beloved bel canto classic.
The director Willie Becker sees La Traviata as being totally about death.
"Time" is the fateful challenger, so a huge clock with ominously moving hands dominates the almost totally barren, light-gray set. Noting that, "the opera begins with the music of the finale, the death scene, forming a circle that ultimately returns to its starting point," he plays with the notion that 12 hours, as well as 60 minutes, or 60 seconds, all create this circle of closure.
It mercilessly condemns the heroine to inevitable death. And with the costumes being totally contemporary, you know he is reminding all of us of our own mortality. Unfortunately all the clever symbolism fails to move us to meaningful involvement. It was hard to believe the lovers were truly in love.
It really did not help that Natalie Dessay was totally miscast. Her tiny, figure in red brocade as the courtesan and white "Victoria's Secret-type" slip, simply cannot pass as the sexy top prostitute of Paris. I champion her attempt to tackle the taxing role, admire that she soldiered through, obviously not totally over the illness that prevented her singing it a few days earlier. (Her speaking voice was decidedly hoarse when the sparkling Deborah Voigt interviewed her during intermission.)
And let's admit it, although vocally quite beautiful, the tenor Matthew Polenzani, was fairly unconvincing as the tormented lover. Too bad also that forcing him to parade around in creased boxer underpants, gave fodder to the disapproving in the audience.
Russia's Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the white-maned always dependable baritone, somehow was not as effective as usual. It also was hard to believe that he could be the father of an Alfredo very similar in age.
Interesting directional points included that the male and female chorus members were all dressed in male tuxedo costumes. The introduction, at the finale, of a younger version of a courtesan in a similar red dress, telegraphed the fickleness of the Parisian clientele. Not very nice!
As always, the sound of the Met's orchestra was magical, and the conducting by Fabio Luisi cannot be second-guessed. But for once, that did not assuage me.
Yet despite it all, as an interested opera buff as well as your reporting critic, I would not have missed this controversy arousing operatic experience for the world!
Here, then some of the pro and con comments from some of your neighbors in the audience:
Grace Speare of Hartsdale, has lost count of how often she has seen La Traviata, an opera she truly loves—"but this is by far the worst production I have ever attended. It succeeded in killing two of the greater world artists: Verdi and Dumas fils. The tenor was like an elephant in a China Shop. Natalie Dessay is a great singer but is completely miscast. Ms. Speare considers the "less-than-amateurish production an insult to the Met's sophisticated audience. You can t play down to us this way," she argued. "The clock was the star here, but at least it was silent. I wish the rest of the cast had been. Shame on the Met for presenting this production!"
Vivian Sheff of Bronxville enjoyed the opera immensely. She especially "liked the contemporary aspect of this, her first La Traviata." She wondered whether the set was so bare to save money for the Met!
Ellen Eichenbaum of White Plains considered the set too contemporary for this opera. "I miss the pageantry, the color of both costuming and the more usual sets. After all this is Grand opera," she continued. "I am not a inveterate traditionalist. I fully approved of the abstract Machine in the Wagner productions for instance."
Her husband, Martin, enjoyed the performance and thought the very symbolic set most interesting.
Luana Ayers of Croton-on-Hudson was brought up to truly admire La Traviata and found this experience very disappointing. "The production did not work, at least not for me. Dessay is a great singer but she is not up for that role. Her voice cracked and even Hvorostovsky had trouble. I was bored. I was conscious of the children in the actual Met matinee audience. If this is their first operatic experience, they had nothing to watch to make them want to return." (I think she is right. What a pity and a missed opportunity if Mr. Gelb is really trying to build a youthful audience.)
Judy Gutman of Larchmont considered the singing outstanding, "especially Dessay and Hvorostovsky." She praised the surrealistic setting, which she felt "allowed the personalities to come through, giving full range to their emotions and relationships." She and her husband, Steve, still attend the actual Met, although she finds the HD s so marvelously easy to get to.
Mimi and Louis Frishman of Pomona in Rockland (and I quote them because they come to us since there is no HD movie offer near them) still have season tickets at the actual house. Here is what Mrs. Frishman, a soprano herself, had to say: "Whoever staged this should be shot. He ruined my opera. I was very annoyed with it all but appreciated the singing, especially that of Dessay, who obviously was not feeling well."
Mattie Abler of Scarsdale reports that she came home to a "ringing phone, having just returned from the disappointing performance of La Traviata." The call was from a friend in Arizona who had also just seen it. She was "raging mad at the presumption of the director transforming a romantic tragedy into a surrealistic spectacle." She expressed my feelings exactly. Isn t it interesting that so similar a reaction came out of the West!
(Would it not be fascinating to know how others felt in the thousands of venues all over the world? I have often received emails from Patch-reading-opera-buffs from places as far away as California and even Australia. But those are very small samplings, though always most welcome. Do keep them coming!)
Pleast post your thoughts in the comments section below!