Willy Decker’s Traviata has garnered praise from critics and audiences alike in the week since its Metropolitan premiere, but (as was to be expected) this praise comes over the complaints of a select few traditionalists, a handful of lonely boos amid the mostly enthusiastic applause. Their objection (as usual) is that Decker’s production betrays the “original text” of “Verdi’s La Traviata.” But these detractors should consider that La Traviata is a work in which questions of betrayal and fidelity are specifically at issue—one that reminds us that sometimes, counterintuitively, the only way to remain faithful to someone or something is to depart from it.
To be sure, Decker’s production is not for everyone. Some will protest against its unabashed formalism—particularly its use of modern (rather than mid-nineteenth-century) dress, a nonrepresentational space, and a stylized approach to acting and gesture. Against the naïve realism traditionally associated with this opera—a realism that merely replicates the visual, spatial, and social dimensions of everyday life—Decker offers up a figural realism, one that invests heavily in the reality of emotional experience.
The curtain doesn’t rise, pace Zeffirelli, on a meticulously reproduced nineteenth-century interior, but rather on a simple, blank, white wall and floor: from the first moment, we’re being invited to think figuratively, not literally. One of the most remarkable aspects of Decker’s La Traviata is its graceful ability to evade the deadly literalism that has surrounded this opera since its premiere, as exemplified by Chorley’s now-infamous quip, “Consumption for one who is to sing! A ballet with a lame Sylphide would be as rational.” Chorley reminds us that La Traviata, for all its verismo, centers upon a situation that can’t plausibly be represented as an opera in the literal terms of realism strictu sensu. For Decker, this paradox isn’t a problem to be solved, but rather, a starting point. If he reads the opera figuratively, it’s because the scenario itself authorizes this reading.
To the literalists, Decker’s mise-en-scène will seem little more than auteurial excess and novelty for its own sake. But from another perspective, Decker’s choices evince an almost classical restraint. Pared down to a few essential elements, there’s something Racinian in the way the tragedy unfolds in an intensely compact time frame, within a single, highly pressurized space, framed by a kind of palais-à-volonté. Some may find, as I did during the opera’s final act, that the near total blankness of the stage might actually allow Verdi’s music to be heard afresh. No, contrary to the protestations of the literalists, there’s not much that’s excessive about this production.
Rather than attempting to shock his audience with new, unprecedented directorial tricks, Decker sends constant signals locating the production within the rich tradition of the historical avant-gardes. I’ve already mentioned the work’s indebtedness to expressionism and to the New Objectivity in my earlier review of the production’s DVD. Elsewhere, James Jorden has talked about Decker’s relation to symbolist dramaturgy. To this, I’d add that the symbolist inheritance is particularly noticeable in the fact the stage appears like a tremendous crescent moon, which may remind viewers of Mallarmé’s reading of the lunar Pierrot: “white as a yet unwritten page.” This Violetta—like Pierrot—is the lunar reflection of our projected imaginations, a tabula rasa. Again, is this La Traviata or Lulu we’re watching?
The literalists will also lament Decker’s decision to remove the action from its traditional setting in the nineteenth century. They should be reminded that Verdi in the 1850s was horrified to see La Traviata set in the early 1700s, a century and a half prior. This should at least raise the question of whether it’s fair to expect productions in the 2000s to be set exclusively in the 1850s.
Wolfgang Gussmann and Susana Mendoza have dressed the cast in contemporary evening wear that is as elegant and symbolic as it is simple. The clothes have the dual effect of both updating the narrative and abstracting it, allowing its submerged allegorical content to appear. Numerous commentators have recognized the way this staging helps to illuminate La Traviata’s status as myth—in Gilles de Van’s words, “the greatest feminine myth in nineteenth-century opera,” alongside Carmen. Decker shines a black light on Traviata, revealing it as a modern response to opera’s founding myth, that of the twice-damned Eurydice. Seen in this light, the decision to have Luigi Roni as Doctor Grenvil stalking the stage throughout much of the drama as a Plutonic figure of death begins to make a good deal more sense.
The production, however, is not interested in mythology as an end in itself: Decker’s aim is more political. He writes in his program note that La Traviata “deals with the relationship of men and women… in a representative way that reaches far beyond the individual fate of one courtesan. In Violetta Valéry’s time and age, a woman would always, in a sense, find herself in the role of a prostitute.” Violetta-as-Everywoman allows us to think critically about how her situation as a prostitute was—and continues to be, Decker’s contemporary production insinuates—a universal one for women under conditions of patriarchy. In the final analysis, then, Decker’s Traviata emerges less as mythology, per se, and more as a Brechtian parable, intended to create critical distance within which political consciousness can emerge.
For all this critical distance, the production nevertheless scales Verdi’s tremendous emotional heights admirably. Although some aspects of Decker’s staging feel a touch unsubtle—particularly the much-maligned clock—these elements are as much interpretive aids as they are symbols. They remind us constantly not to understand the action as a particular character’s fate, but as a critique of larger social arrangements and a meditation on mortality. Even the clock is used to exciting effect at times, spinning madly out of control before Violetta’s terrified eyes while the chorus bellows the frenzied “Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora.”
Barring some small changes in blocking, and two stunning new lighting effects involving a backdrop which really should be seen rather than described, the production playing this month at the Met does not substantively depart from the Deutsche Grammophon DVD recording of its world premiere in Salzburg 2005. The biggest change lies in the production’s new headliners, who give the production much the same shape as it formerly had, but who also mostly lack the dark intensity of the Salzburg/DVD performance. Operagoers who drift through the Met’s gift shop during the evening’s one intermission will catch a glimpse of the DVD being played on the shop’s flat-screen televisions: the convulsive energy fueling the Salzburg performance is noticeable by contrast to the toned-down feeling of the live event.
Conductor Gianandrea Noseda mostly plays it safer with the tempi and dynamics than his predecessor Rizzi, but nevertheless leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra capably and sensitively through the evening. Matthew Polenzani is honey-voiced and almost flawless vocally as Germont fils. Dramatically speaking, however, he gets off to a subdued start and takes a while to grow in intensity. He’s often more like a hapless Don Ottavio than a hot-blooded Alfredo, but he ultimately creates a dynamic character trajectory.
As the elder Germont, Andrzej Dobber excels. He has a majestic, round baritone that captures the sinister undertones undulating in the strings throughout act two and weaves them into dense, dark fabrics of sound. His Germont is a crueler and more confident man than Thomas Hampson’s. He doesn’t go to pieces in self-disgust after smacking sense into Alfredo, as Hampson does in the Salzburg DVD, but holds his ground.
Marina Poplavskaya had the unenviable challenge of taking over for Anna Netrebko in the opera’s leading role, and the equally daunting task of following her own impressive performance in the role of Elisabetta in the Met’s production of Don Carlo earlier this season. In both respects, she met with a mixed degree of success. She is a fine actor, fully committed, icy when compared to Netrebko’s fiery Violetta, but every bit as engaging. Vocally, however, she gave an uneven performance in this exceptionally challenging role.
On January 4th, sounding a bit like she was recovering from opening night and protecting her voice for the second half of the opera, she struggled through act one, often inaudible as she moved farther upstage. The coloratura passages in “Sempre libera” sounded particularly troublesome and exhausting for her, leading her to drop whole phrases at the end of the aria. She shone more and more as the evening went on, and was at her strongest in “Addio del passato,” which just about brought down the house.
Photos: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera