traviataAs we look forward to New Year’s Eve and to the gala opening of Willy Decker’s La Traviata at the Met, it seems fitting to look back—by way of the official, live, DVD recording of the production’s sensational world premiere at the Salzburg Festival in 2005—to get some sense of what’s behind all the hype. Released in 2005 by Deutsche Grammophon, this recording promises an exciting evening for the Met’s audience on December 31st, but also raises the question of whether the New York premiere will live up to the high expectations set in Salzburg.

Elegantly and unobtrusively shot by video director Brian Large, the opera as recorded unfolds with all the forcefulness of the original production seemingly undiminished. Under Carlo Rizzi’s baton, the Wiener Philharmoniker overflows with explosive energy. The still, suspenseful moments in Verdi’s score pulse with a heart-stopping electricity, while the faster ones race ahead irresistibly, always threatening to escape Rizzi’s control but only rarely doing so as the tragedy’s plot hurtles forward like a runaway train toward its destruction. This approach often reveals the opera as a study in extreme states, foregrounding the way it anticipates Verdi’s later, more expressionistic works.

In this regard, Decker’s mise-en-scène is perfectly in tune with Rizzi’s interpretation. Decker dispenses with the damasks, corsets, and candelabra—in short with all the romantic images, décor, and dress of Italian verismo (abundantly in evidence in Franco Zeffirelli’s resplendent Met production)—and reveals Verdi’s opera as an early forerunner of expressionism and the Neue Sachlichkeit, gently reminding the viewer that the space between La Traviata and Lulu is perhaps not so great as it might at first appear.

When the chorus enters in act one, it storms onstage, a teeming phalanx, all men (including Flora and the female singers), all devoid of individual identity and all wearing the same black, three-button suit, black shoes, white shirt, and black tie: in short, the anonymizing uniform of bourgeois capital. The carousing in “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” is more sinister than mirthful, and at each reappearance, the chorus grows only more threatening, with the gypsies’ dance in act three, performed in masks, becoming downright nightmarish.

Complementing these uncanny effects, set designer Wolfgang Gussman has conceived of the space as a massive room framed by a single, curving wall, spanning the width of the stage in gleaming white. Spartan, sterile, and comfortless, a more arresting metaphor for La Traviata’s world and the exacting economy within which its characters operate could hardly be imagined.

Violetta, wearing a cocktail-dress of eye-smarting crimson brocade, acts our her tragedy in this highly compressed space from which no escape is possible, while the final minutes of life tick away on an enormous, ever-present clock. Eerily—and gorgeously—lit by lighting director Hans Toelstede, the glossy walls of the space glow in dreamy blues and rich pinks, draining the performers’ bodies of all human warmth and making them appear as though they were wearing a ghastly whiteface.

The leading performances are uniformly strong. The three principals spend much of the opera throwing themselves around the space restlessly, fumbling frantically at one another’s bodies. There is something in the way they flail that suggests a half-drunken, half-caffeinated state: life has become a party that’s gone on far too long, so long that it only makes sense now to stay awake, force oneself through its motions, and await its harrowing end. As they tear about the stage, they frequently run out of breath mid-line or drop the final syllables of phrases, their acting every bit as physically exhausting and as emotionally ferocious as their singing.

Thomas Hampson brings to Giorgio Germont a soaring, lyric quality and a clearness of tone that are unconventional for a role more often reserved for darker baritone voices. In the character’s most deliciously sadistic moments in act two (for example, in “Un dì, quando le veneri”), he offers a more sympathetic interpretation that runs against the grain of the music’s viciousness. Hampson’s Giorgio is less the familiar melodramatic villain and more desperate, pleading, and pitiful. He’s a patriarch who can barely control his own emotions, let alone the actions of others—in short, a nicer guy than Giorgio often is—but, Decker’s production makes clear, a patriarch nonetheless.

The Mexican tenor Roland Villazón proves himself a singularly impressive Alfredo Germont, and brings tremendous voice and personality to the role. Outwardly a bit unheroic and unprepossessing, he nevertheless captures the outsized passion of the young idealist poet with an astonishing vocal athleticism. His early “O mio rimorso” is pure thunder. Later, he roars through “Ogni suo aver tal femmina,” the camera catching every flash of his eyes as he pours down cruelty unstinted upon Violetta’s helpless frame, ultimately stuffing his winnings into her cleavage, her mouth, and between her thighs, a revenge tinged with rape fantasy. A dynamic and expressive performer, his intensity onstage is matched only by Anna Netrebko in the role of Violetta.

Hailed by the New York Times as having given “the performance of her young career” in Decker’s Traviata, the soprano does not disappoint in this recording. She commands the stage and the audience’s full attention from the first notes of the overture to the opera’s final chord. As a soprano, she is fuller-voiced and more earthy than one often expects for Violetta: she doesn’t flutter or scintillate through the vocal acrobatics of “Sempre libera” but instead seems sometimes to push through them by sheer force of will.

In this instance, however, far from detracting from her performance, this earthbound quality only reinforces the audience’s sense of the character’s inability to transcend her own situation. Elsewhere, the depth and richness of her tone works to magnificent effect: her “Amami, Alfredo,” performed barefoot and with hair disheveled, communicated in halting gestures to Villazón kneeling before her, is nothing short of glorious. Again, the DVD reveals every facial expression, every minute gesture, and Netrebko—as effective an actor for the camera as a she is musician for the opera hall—does not disappoint.

The Deutsche Grammophon DVD of Decker’s Traviata is a remarkable document of one of the defining operatic events of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Revisiting the production via DVD more than five years after its Salzburg premiere, it still seems remarkably fresh. It’s possible that the New York premiere will confirm its status as a contemporary classic of sorts, but much will depend upon the changes in its cast and conductor.

In a recent interview with New York Observer reporter Zachary Woolfe, Netrebko was reported as having said, “That production [i.e., Decker’s Traviata] was pretty big a few years ago, and I don’t think it’s going to be the same after four or five years. It was [a] very specific production, very specific time, and specific partners. I don’t think its going to be the same. I think somebody else can do it if they can.”

On December 31st, conductor Gianandrea Noseda steps in for Carlo Rizzi and performers Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Polenzani, and Andrzej Dobber take over for the Salzburg production’s three principals: watch this space for news of how the Metropolitan team lives up to their predecessors.

[Editor’s note: This performance is now also available in Blu-ray, with breathtaking sound and picture: the first opera in this new high-def format La Cieca added to her collection!]