18 Dec Willy Decker’s emotion-packed La traviata returns in triumph to The Met
By Robert Levine, 17 December 2014
Willy Decker’s 2010 bleak, fascinating, controversial production of La traviata has returned to The Met with an entirely new cast. The “we-want-ringlets-and-camellias” crowd, accustomed only to the two previous productions, both by Franco Zeffirelli (1989 and 1998), was bound to come around in the end: Decker’s production is simply too emotion-packed to ignore.
The almost bare set, bathed in either startling white or sickly blue light features mostly reds and blacks and – most noticeably – a huge clock. This clock and the presence of a silent, aged man wandering about the set (who turns out, in Act III, to be Dr Grenvil) signify, of course, the passage of time and how it is running out for Violetta, and omnipresent death, respectively.
The symbolism may be heavy, but the effect is undeniably powerful; Violetta runs to the clock’s rapidly spinning hands at one point and stops them. The guests at Violetta’s party are an awful bunch – nasty, crude drunkards, all dressed as men – and they’re even more vile at Flora’s in Act II: one of the men puts on Violetta’s red dress and the others jab at him, and they poke and jeer at Alfredo: they become his nightmare. The elder Germont is unforgiving in the second act; Decker makes the point that it is his rejection of Violetta that steals her dignity and eventually kills her, dying alone, on a bare stage.
Apparently the prima, the week before (I attended the second performance, on December 16th), was thrown into disarray when tenor Stephen Costello cancelled just an hour before the performance. There were no problems with Mr Decker’s tricky staging or ensembles on the 16th. Musically and dramatically well-prepared, soloists, chorus and orchestra were on top form. Marina Rebeka, whose only previous Met performances were as an unimpressive Donna Anna in Michael Grandage’s tedious Don Giovanni four years ago, was a superb Violetta.
Attractive, comfortable on stage (and standing on the minimalist furniture), and with a shining soprano, she negotiated the coloratura difficulties of the first act with ease, even touching on an interpolated high E flat at the close of “Sempre libera”. She has several degrees of pianissimo as well; the spun lines of “Dite alle giovane” and “Addio del passato” were lovely and touching. She uses no chest voice at all and it was occasionally missed late in the opera, but the voice opens up to a grand size when needed, and she did well with “Amami, Alfredo” and her death scene. She should be a valuable asset to New York’s opera lovers.
Tenor Stephen Costello, cutting a fine figure as well, was a sensitive, naïve Alfredo, as per Decker’s concept. Ardent, loving, later confused and hurt, enraged to a point of hysteria in the gambling scene, and rueful at last, he sang with handsome, rounded tone. The tessitura of “Oh mio rimorso” challenged him somewhat and he didn’t attempt the audience lagniappe of a high C at its close, but his was a fine performance.
Baritone Quinn Kelsey, with a gigantic voice, filled the role of Giorgio Germont with derision for Violetta – he even laughs when he sees that she has sold everything she owns – but softened beautifully for “Di Provenza”, sung with melting lyricism. His voice occasionally bullied the others, but it only made one dislike the character even more. Maya Lahyani sounded good as Flora, but dressed precisely like all the other choristers, she was hard to spot; the same might be said of the other small roles.
Marco Armiliato led an intense performance, which could have used a bit of softening and leisure for both “Dite all giovane” and “Parigi, o cara”, but it’s hard to tell if the lack of sentiment at those moments were dictated by Decker’s outlook. But ensembles were tight, singers had room, and the audience went home deeply moved.