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La Traviata: Met's Live HD Version

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For reasons that will become obvious as you read, this item gets a page of its own.

La Traviata (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Natalie Dessay, Matthew Polenzani, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Patricia Risley, Maria Zifchak, Luigi Roni, Peter Volpe, Kyle Pfortmiller, Jason Stearns; conducted by Fabio Luisi; production by Willy Decker; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, April 14, 2012

La Traviata gets me every time. Go ahead and sue me if you want, but I’m a sucker for that business about the courtesan who’s more-sinned-against-than-sinner. Whenever it’s on the Saturday broadcast, we stay within listening reach of the radio all afternoon. But why the big push this time to get a ticket for the Met’s HD Live Broadcast in movie theatres?

Because of the production concept, that’s why. I’d been hearing so much about Willy Decker’s controversial production that I had to see it for myself. Would his stark, ultra-modern approach, the jettisoning of all the lush trappings, ruin everything? The set, I’d heard, is nothing but an empty semi-circle, surround by tall, bare walls. Only a few pieces of furniture are brought on as needed. A huge clock stands ominously at one side as a reminder that time is running out for Violetta, the consumptive heroine. In case any further hint of her doom is required, many of the scenes have the baleful Doctor Granville watching from the sidelines.

With any such radical re-envisioning of a beloved classic, there’s always the risk that a critic will make loud noises of approval, just to show how hip and cool he is. However, you might come to the conclusion that he’s not trying to create that impression if he were to admit that the production had him in tears most of the time. Not that we’re necessarily talking about anybody you or I know. Let’s just say the production worked on me something like an emotional scud missile.

If you don’t want to read a long and breathless account of it all, you’re welcome to skip the following. Just take away this simple message: it was one of the most exciting theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.

Why? Because, with all the physical realism stripped away, you got to the heart of the emotional realism. By discarding the frippery, the finery, the beauty and the elegance, Mr. Decker has exposed the TRUTH. If ever there was an argument for a re-envisioning of a classic, this is it.

Take the opening. At the first sound of that plaintive overture, Violetta appears on stage. She looks dishevelled, distraught. Barely able to walk, she is tottering around the perimeter of the curved space, trying to cling to the walls. Clearly, this woman has just got the dire news about her condition – let’s say she’s just come home from the doctor’s office – and she’s trying to face her fate, alone. It’s an agonizing moment. But the overture ends and her friends burst in, calling for a party. Why not? she responds. She kicks up her heels and joins them for one last fling.

Something like that Why not? is the way I found myself responding constantly throughout the production. Time and again, Willy Decker’s innovations suddenly seemed obvious and inevitable. You had to keep wondering: why didn’t anybody think of this before? Well, to be fair, Franco Zeffirelli did, sort of. If I remember his movie of the opera correctly, it starts with a pale, wan Teresa Stratas wandering her dilapidated mansion and looking at her ghastly reflection in a tarnished mirror. There, she sees her memories of past parties come to life and, thus, the whole opera takes place as a flashback to happier times. Somewhat in the same vein as Mr. Decker’s version, then, but the Zeffirelli approach was arty and poetic, whereas this one is abrupt and brutal.

Which does raise some questions occasionally. When those party-goers arrive at Violetta’s in this production, it struck me as odd, at first, that the women were all dressed as men: suits and ties, hair slicked back. But then it occurred to me: of course, Violetta would want only men at her party. Why would she invite any women? Her house was virtually an open house for guys. At Flora’s party in the third scene, another interpretation of the mannish appearance of the women came to mind: hasn’t this business of women dressing as men often been a sign of the decadence of certain cultures? (Think Berlin in the 1930s.) It helps, then to give a feeling of the outr world that Violetta inhabits.

None of Mr. Decker’s ingenious strategies would have worked, of course, if you didn’t have a superb actress in the title role. I’m not sure that Natalie Dessay’s voice is perfect for Violetta. If it ever was, perhaps that time has passed. Maybe Ms Dessay was admitting that during the intermission interview when she apologized, in a tongue-in-cheek way, for missing the high note at the end of act one. (Actually, she didn’t miss it; it just wasn’t very good) You wanted to hug her and tell her that it didn’t matter. Her Violetta wasn’t about perfect, gorgeous singing. It was something beyond that. It was about giving us, in music and in many other ways, the essence of a damned but heroic soul.

That vignette during the overture, for instance. As Ms Dessay proceeded slowly around her room, you recognized at once that this was an actor who knew how to use her body to convey messages. You began to think that she must have studied mime. Like the production itself, she was stripping away beauty from the character; not once did you get the impression she was trying to be pretty. In her flamboyant red cocktail dress and heels, her gaunt face with its wide eyes, she looked like – not quite a drug addict – but a woman who’d led a decidedly unhealthy lifestyle.

And, for those of us in the HD Live audience, the cameras made her even more vulnerable and exposed, offering glimpses of things like her bra straps and the freckles on her arms. A special instance of what we might call the non-glamorous interpretation of Violetta came when she had agreed to write the letter of separation from Alfredo. There’s a pause because she can’t decide what to write. While a haunting clarinet sounded from the orchestra, Violetta staggered mutely about the room, paper and pencil in hand, her face a mask of horror. It’s hard to think of any prima donna in a traditional production allowing herself to look so awful.

There were so many marvels to Ms Dessay’s performance – undoubtedly with Mr. Decker’s help – that, I’ll have to confine myself to a few of favourites. There’s the tantalizing moment when, during her great cry of freedom "Sempre libera!", Violetta happens to hear the echo of Alfredo’s love song from off stage. How is the soprano going to react? Is she going to go all dreamy? The moment could turn out to be romantic corn at its worst. But here, Violetta happens to be lying on a couch, so she curls into the fetal position and puts her hands over her ears! Later in the aria, we hear Alfredo’s voice again, usually from outside, but in this production, he’s back on stage. He has sneaked back into Violetta’s room. And isn’t this exactly what a smitten lover would do? The great thing about this is that now, when Violetta sings the reprise of her cry of freedom, she’s much less confident of it, much more tentative about her rejection of love, given the flesh-and-blood presence of Alfredo.

One of the best moments of the production had to be the point when Violetta decided to accede to the elder Germont’s request that she break off her scandalous affair with his son so that Germont’s daughter could make a good marriage. Violetta’s famous words are: "Dite alla giovane...." ("Tell the beautiful, pure young girl that no harm will come to her from me...") And how does Violetta deliver the lines in this production? She turns her back on Germont. She focuses her attention on the clock that is signalling her demise. And she sings her words in the tiniest voice possible. I’m thinking: Of course, nobody could look at the person who has asked her to make such a great sacrifice; if she had any hope of keeping any control, she’d have to look away. And maybe it’s no coincidence that this is where we got some of Ms Dessay’s most exquisite singing of the afternoon, the long line spun out like a delicate filament of spider web.

Another of Ms Dessay’s great moments was at the end. Alfredo comes rushing back to her when she has only moments left to live. He goes all romantic and gushy and, in a lilting melody, sings about how they’re going to return to Paris, her health is going to flourish and everything’s gonna be fine. Then she repeats the melody, the words. Normally you think of the two of them, face to face, smiling blissfully, caught up in the fantasy. Not here. Violetta can’t look at him as she sings what’s required. She’s looking away from him. There’s death in her eyes. You know that she’s repeating all this romantic rot only because he needs to hear it. This is one very intelligent Violetta.

Sometimes reviews on this website have expressed reservations about Matthew Polenzani’s singing. They’re all hereby withdrawn. I’m a huge fan of his now. His singing as Alfredo was sweet and perfectly pitched. Flawless, if you ask me. As for his acting, he had me from the moment when he launched into the big drinking song in the first act. Usually, I picture a brash tenor stepping forward, all puffed up at his moment to take the spotlight, his big chance to get the attention of the exotic woman he’s been admiring from afar. But Mr. Polenzani’s Alfredo, when called upon by his friends to make the toast, was suddenly seized with stage fright. He was the kid who’s afraid to speak up when everybody turns their attention to him. So right!

Again with thanks to Mr. Decker, Mr. Polenzani’s work in the opening of Act Two was brilliant. Usually, Alfredo’s standing there all alone, singing about how he’s living in paradise, here in his rural idyl with Violetta. A monologue addressed to the birds, you might say. But here, Violetta’s in the room with him. And why shouldn’t she listen to him sing about how happy he is to be living with her? The whole time that he’s singing, they’re playing a sort of game of hide and seek: she keeps running and hiding behind couches, waiting for him to find her.

The couches are covered with throws of extravagantly floral fabric, the only suggestion of luxury or opulence in the surroundings. The same fabric is used for the identical dressing gowns that Violetta and Alfredo are wearing. They’ve just got out of bed, of course. When their dressing gowns fall open, we see what they’re wearing – or not wearing – underneath. Production photos had prepared me for Violetta’s skimpy slip, but Alfredo’s boxer shorts and bare legs certainly were a surprise. But again, the reaction was: why not??? This is how they’d spend a leisurely, indolent morning. Then, when it came time to dash off to Paris, Mr. Polenzani got dressed in his business suit on stage. Putting on your pants and zipping them up while singing must be a challenge that not many tenors can perform with as much aplomb as Mr. Polenzani did.

Alfredo’s confrontation with his father offered more fascinating character revelation by Mr. Polenzani. In an attempt to console his son about Violetta’s leaving, the old man reaches out and touches the boy’s hair. The son flinches and recoils. And why wouldn’t he??? As the father goes on and on about the beauties of the homeland, predicting how Alfredo’s gonna feel much better down on the farm, Alfredo rolls his eyes and makes sarcastic faces. He’s being the typical teenager who can’t stand the old guy’s bullshit.

But when Alfredo makes an insulting remark about Violetta, the father smacks him in the face. Alfredo falls to the ground, shocked at first, but then he crawls behind a couch where the dad can’t see him and bawls like a baby. That’s so true: all insolence and bravado in the face of the dad, but hopelessly crushed when alone. It looked like there was only about ten years’ difference in the ages of father and son here, but the dynamics between them worked so well that that didn’t matter. Dmitri Hvorostovksy had struck me as a bit hammy when he first came on as the haughty aristocrat in the scene with Violetta but he got better when he was allowed to thaw a little. His voice, of course, flowed out with the predictable velvety tones.

To end with just a few specifics about the production. You might think the minimalist style would clash with the gorgeous music. Not at all. It made the poignancy of the music all the more striking. In fact, the stripped-down approach actually made some things work better than they do in a realistic production. As in all the coming-and-going in the second scene. It always strikes me as rather implausible the way people are rushing in and out, either on their way to Paris or from Paris, and no one seems to be bumping into anybody else. In this production, without the trappings of a real country villa – no flowers, no vines, no paintings, just those bare walls – you didn’t bother about questions of physical plausibility. The setting wasn’t meant to look real. Certain things were meant to be taken as symbols, more resonant as such than if they were ordinary, every-day things.

Another place where this idea cropped up was in Flora’s party. Before Violetta and the Baron arrived, somebody produced a red dress that was a replica of Violetta’s. One of the men put it on and they taunted Alfredo with it. Some such surrealistic touch seemed called for by the rather spooky folklore-ish song from the chorus about a bullfighter. And why wouldn’t somebody produce just such a dress to torment Alfredo? Everybody knew it was emblematic of Violetta – it’s the only thing she ever wears to parties. It would seem inevitable, then, that the red dress would make a good way for these mean-spirited people to bully Alfredo about the fact that Violetta has left him.

The transition to that party from the preceding scene – the one between Alfredo and Germont – struck me as perhaps the only aspect of the production that might not have worked very well. (The last three scenes were run together without pause.) We ended the father/son scene with the two of them in a clinch, the father trying to do a comforting embrace and the son struggling to get away, whereupon the party-goers rushed in and the next scene began. Maybe not a bad idea, but it left Alfredo on stage all that time instead of giving him a later entrance to the party. Mr. Polenzani looked slightly adrift. It would be hard for any actor to make something of that business of getting jerked around by the revellers for so long.

But the transition between the final two scenes worked splendidly. At the end of Flora’s party, when Violetta has been horribly insulted and humiliated, when she knows that it’s game over for her, that her return to Parisian society has been a mistake, she takes off the red dress. Would a person take off her dress in the middle of a party? Yes. Taking off their clothes is what people do to signify a turning point, a decisive moment. Think of Francis of Assisi stripping naked in the street to mark his rejection of his father’s wealth and prestige. Clad now in just her slip, Violetta collapses in a heap and the party people slowly back out the door. With the result that, as the strains of the prelude to the final scene begin, Violetta’s lying on the bare stage (symbolic of the shabby state of her apartment in her impoverished condition) until she finally stirs, and, on the last morning of her life, asks what time of day it is.

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