23 Dec La Traviata: Marina Rebeka’s Violetta is a Transcendent Rebel
In many ways, Verdi’s “La Traviata” is a quintessential opera. Set in the mid-1800s, the work tells the story of the young woman and her inability to find happiness in love. A courtesan Violetta is forced to leave her lover before facing an illness that ultimately takes her life. Verdi’s opening music highlights this riveting tragedy with delicate phrases on the violins, the very music that will reappear in the third and final act, almost ushering in the power of fate and Violetta’s inability to fight it. This very idea of a Sisyphean struggle for Violetta is at the core of Willy Decker’s brilliant production. The circularity of Violetta’s life is acknowledged by the massive semi-circular set as well as the big clock that plays such a vital role in the production as a whole. A symbol of fate, the clock reminds Violetta that despite her every struggle she is not going to die.
This is furthered by the mysterious figure of Doctor Grenvil, who is seated onstage prior to the start of the performance and looms about at key moments. The space itself is rather empty except when filled with furniture at certain moments. In its vast emptiness, Decker makes his most tragic statement about Violetta’s life — it is empty despite her every attempt to fill it. And fill it she does. There are numerous party guests, all in black (as if they were little more than actual shadows in her life). There are couches that populate the stage in Act 2 that are covered in sheets of flowers. Even in this moment the area above the top of the stage is filled with a flower pattern that ultimately fades throughout the dramatic events of this sequence. By the time Violetta is facing down death in the final act, the clock sits in the middle. And even then, with time literally running out for her, it ceases to be a part of her life. A crowd of villagers (also dressed in black suits) arrive alongside a young girl, who is given Violetta’s trademark red dress and whisked away on the clock — the tragic philosophical epiphany that Violetta’s own life is really no different or special from anyone else’s.
This undoubtedly angers many audience members who want to remember Verdi’s most personal work as more than a philosophical discourse on existentialism, but Decker manages to enthrall intellectually without diminishing the performance or emotions on tap. If anything, the bareness of the stage and intense philosophical ideals looming large allow for an interpretation like Marina Rebeka’s to come to fore. One could hardly call Violetta a passive character. She makes decision for the good of others while enduring the pain. But at the same time, Violetta herself often allows others to dictate her life. Alfredo’s love awakens her desire to live a life of love; she does not consider it before that (interestingly, the viewer never sees her make or explain the decision to live with him, and it is actually Alfredo who reveals it). Germont’s arrival forces her to leave this love, and at the end, she becomes embarrassed and shamed by her own lover and refuses to fight back. If anything, she forgives him. And when all comes to boil, she dies without any real chance at fighting another day on her own.
But in the glamorous Rebeka’s hands, Violetta is not only active but aggressively clings to life. But not initially. When we meet her Violetta, she is actually quite self-destructive. She loves mistreating others, particularly Alfredo, and she tries to drink down some alcohol in defiance of Grenvil who lumbers about watching her every move. During her duet with Alfredo, “Un di felice,” she sang with such emphatic accents on the high A naturals (“Ah, se cio e ver, fuggitemi”) that she provided the perfect counterpoint to his delicate melody. The ensuing sixty-fourth note gestures came off as her derisively laughing him off. In her famous scene at the end of Act 1, she favored a quicker tempo for the aria “Ah, fors’e lui,” adding urgency to her dilemma and highlighting her riveting crescendo into the passionate “A quell’amor ch’e palpito.” As the aria approached its end, her voice settled into a more relaxed quality, suggesting a sense of serenity for Violetta. But the violent outbursts of “Follie! Follie!” reasserted her as a women in charge of her own destiny and freedom, and her singing of the fiendish “Sempre libera” was delivered with a such frenzied bravura that there was no doubt of this woman’s power. Potent accents on every passage leading to the D flats expressed this sense of strength and Rebeka’s voice, which was in complete command of this vocal nightmare, threw off the coloratura with relative easy. But then the psychological reversal came to the fore upon Alfredo’s re-emergence onstage with his “Amor e palpito” softened her significantly and the rest of the cabaletta was sung piano, a clear contrast from the first reprisal that was denoted by her attempts to reassert the singing to that previous rendition. At the end, she gave in to him but not without a riveting internal struggle that was externalized vocally and physically.
And then came Act 2. In this act, many sopranos wind up reverting to a characterization that shows Violetta as rather malleable. Again Rebeka proved otherwise. During the fateful confrontation with Germont, the heart and soul of the work, Rebeka stood her ground as Baritone Quinn Kelsey went from repulsing and mocking her. The famous lines “Donna son io, signore, ed in mia casa (I am a lady, sir and this is my house” were delivered with such firmness of sound and emphatic consonants that there was no questioning the verity of her statement. Even Kelsey looked annoyed by her strong defiance and seemed to shrink and soften by the second thereafter. When she refused to follow his request (“Non sapete quale affetto”), the sound rustled through the theater with cataclysmic aplomb. Anyone doubting her love for Alfredo would think twice upon hearing this passionate outcry. As the duet delved deeper and deeper into its inevitable denouement, that explosion of sound became more and more subdued until finally she gave in with the most delicate sliver of sound throughout “Ah dite all giovine,” not so much resigned as utterly destroyed. Her plea to be hugged like a daughter by Germont was arguably the most heart-wrenching moment of the entire evening as it became clear that for Violetta this was the last time she might have a chance to be comforted by someone dear to her. Her ensuing scene with Alfredo was filled with in intense passion, but Rebeka’s plea “Amami Alfredo” more than filled with desperation was a call of utmost sincerity. As she stared into his eyes, she had a smile on her face, and it was not a mask but an honest declaration of love.
In the final act, Rebeka really displayed a Violetta clinging to every ounce of life in her. Her “E tardi” was filled with anger and thrown at Grenvil, whose back was turned to her. This was an act of defiance, a woman who hated saying those words because she refused to accept them. Even the “Addio del passato,” in which the text has Violetta accept her fate, was sung with ever growing intensity. Even the repeated section, in which Violetta imagines that there will be no flower at her tomb and where she implores God for comfort, the sound grew ever stronger, emphasizing her struggle. A common vocal motif of Rebeka’s performance was her ease with creating riveting crescendos out of nothing on single notes or across phrases. The effect almost symbolized this eternal struggle of Violetta to assert herself from the nothingness around her, her voice and its growing sound portraying her strength and existence. Nowhere was this musical gesture more apparent than in the “Addio del passato” and each crescendo became more and more potent in its effect.
And even when it became clear that she was bound to die, her singing expressed an inability to let go. Her “Ah! Gran Dio! Morir Si Giovine” was directed right at the implacable Grenvil, her final battle with fate despite knowing full well that she would lose. When she finally came to terms with it in the final minutes of the opera, Rebeka’s voice showcased a new color, a sublimely delicate one of a woman not in despair but at peace. Albert Camus once stated that when he watched the boulder roll back down the hill, there was a serenity in Sisyphus’ eyes, the look of a man who not only came to terms with the inevitability of his fate, but also embraced it. This was the expression of Rebeka’s voice in those final moments. It gave a new meaning to her final “O Gioia (Oh, joy!).” And because it certainly made Violetta’s final moment one of transcendence, a woman who was something in the nothing, it made her death all the more tragic.
Quinn Kelsey was a riveting Germont. His work alongside Rebeka was fascinating in every respect, the two managing to develop the relationship from one at odds to one of great closeness. Kelsey’s arc from arrogance to pain and suffering highlighted the idea of Germont’s sense of guilt. In many ways, it was easy to feel that he actually suffered more than any other at seeing Violetta die at the end. His vocal display certainly added this. He has a full-blooded sound that is capable of a vast palette of colors. His entrance was delivered with the full resonance of his voice, but during his plea to Violetta, “Pura siccome un angelo” he sang with a gentle timbre. Throughout the course of the duet, he, like Rebeka, would take on a more tender quality to the singing, highlighting their emotional understanding. During his aria “Di Provenza il mar, il suol” he approached it with a similarly relaxed sound but grew in strength during the second verse, highlighting his growing frustration with Alfredo and making the climactic slap in the face of his son all the more believable. He did struggle a bit in the cabaletta “No, non udrai rimpoveri” as the orchestra tended to cover him, but it did little to opaque a brilliant performance by him. During the “Disprezzo degno,” his emphatic consonants and massive volume added to the gravity of the situation. There was a tinge of regret coming to the fore in these moments, but his glances toward Violetta expressed that his thoughts were mainly for her.
Rebeka and Kelsey’s brillaint performances were so potent that it was unfortunate that the third piece to the “Traviata” puzzle, Alfredo, was not brought to the same level of fascinating life. Stephen Costello, he of the movie star looks and a former Richard Tucker Award winner, never really managed to produce a convincing vocal or onstage presence. His awkward gait might suit Alfredo’s outsider nature, but he always seemed a step behind in dealing with the spontaneity of the other two performances. Costello produced a vibrant and elegant sound in his middle registers, but upon entering the passaggio of his voice, he created a dull, unstable quality that he tries to overcome with rapid vibrato. Moreover, his intonation in these upper reaches was consistently flat. Throughout his performance of the cabaletta “O mio romorso!” the issues in the upper register came to the fore with the climactic B flats never quite working well and the orchestra constantly drowning out the thin nature of his sound up top. His finest moment vocally came during the famed Brindisi at the start of Act 1, as he was able to relish the best part of his voice. Still 32, Costello’s voice has time to further develop. Here’s hoping he continues his ascent.
Worthy of note was James Courtney as the looming Grenvil. He did not get to sing until the final act (and even then it was only a few lines), but his look and his presence made him a major part of this powerful drama.
Conducted Marco Armiliato favored quick tempi throughout the night, adding more tension to the drama but also leaving the chorus behind in certain passages. This was ever present during the chorus’ exit of Act 1, a vibrant passage filled with devilish syncopation. For some reason or other, the chorus and orchestra could never find each other in this passage, making it an aural mess. The same took place during the Bullfighters chorus of Act 2, scene 2. But aside from this, Armiliato drew some wondrous colors from the orchestra, particularly in the Act 3 prelude. Verdi’s palette of sound in this work gives a prominent role to the violins, especially in the upper reaches. Their piercing nature gives off the feel of fragility and utter pain. Armiliato managed to maximize this painful mourning of the violins during the Act 3 prelude, their descending gestures almost resigned.
Marina Rebeka came on the scene at the Met as an irresistible Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, but here she has showcased another wondrous aspect as the tragic heroine in Verdi’s unforgettable masterpiece. Flanked by the multi-faceted turn by Quinn Kelsey and Willy Decker’s ever-fascinating production, this is a must-see of the Metropolitan’s 2014-15 season.