On Thursday evening, the Teatro alla Scala audience didn’t watch the familiar presentation of a “wayward woman” who overcomes moral inferiority only to be robbed of happiness when she finally deserved it. 

What Anna Netrebko, in her first assumption of the role of Violetta in La Traviata in seven years (12 years after her success in Willy Decker’s modernist production in Salzburg), delivered instead was the story of a woman who works, suffers, suffers again, and dies a painful, lonely death, all because of the decisions of the men around her. The ultimate result was an absolute operatic performance at turns illuminating and deeply unsettling. The singing, though, was only illuminating.

Seldom does one see a characterization that both attempts and achieves so much. This complex, real Violetta was an even, nuanced melding of class, profession, illness, age, and spirituality. It transcended the “tart with a heart” stereotype and rendered a stark picture of the damaged, degraded life of a sick, insecure yet self-aware sex worker whose only out is suddenly taken from her.

Not totally able to connect with her peers on account of her profession and heartily stigmatized illness, or view interactions with others, such as the one with Alfredo’s father, as much more than transactional, Netrebko’s Violetta seemed almost a reference to Alphonsine DuPlessis, the low-born courtesan who eventually achieved great fame and inspired Dumas-fils to write the book that inspired the opera.

Urgently dragging the Baron Douphol center stage for a kiss after the Act I duet with Alfredo which obviously unsettled more than delighted her, this Violetta established herself both radically aware of her sexuality but also deeply insecure. She’s too good at a job she views as self-destructive, and it scares her.

When she tried to turn Alfredo’s father away upon his entrance, asserting that her rebuffing was “più per voi che per me,” the “per me” was eked out in shame; Violetta sees herself as inferior, but by leaving Alfredo by her own volition, she can start to remedy that. Her resolve to leave and subsequent doubt of its efficacy were what made Netrebko’s Violetta so impacting.

Though the announcement that Netrebko would reassume Violetta surprised me, as she last sang the role seven years ago and her voice has undergone changes, namely gaining in richness of tone and heft but seemingly losing some in agility, since then. There should be no worry, though. She sang with security and a refreshing freeness across her range throughout.

The coloratura of the first act was capably dispatched with and fully-supported high notes (she did not attempt the high e-flat at the end of Act I nor the interpolated high note at the end of “È fors’ e lui” heard on this week’s recording from Paris) were reached with ease. In the subsequent acts, though, she infused her singing with drama to full effect. Her confrontation with Germont-père was sung with force, the outcome being on Violetta’s terms, no matter how difficult.

“Amami Alfredo” was not a melodramatic swell, but a painful affirmation of love before a brisk goodbye, and “Alfredo, alfredo, di questo core” was wept in long, delicate phrases, a public lamentation over denouncement by the one man that had been kind to her. But the apex of the performance was without a doubt her “Addio del passato” which started with not a reading, but a pained recitation of a crumpled letter committed to memory.

Over the following five or so minutes, Netrebko as Violetta bargained with God, mourning a wasted youth but begging that He accept her “anima stanca” after an honest search to right the wrongs she thought she committed. Her pleading, earnest reading of “accogliela, O Dio!” will forever stay in my mind. The well-deserved three minutes of applause that followed will, too.

Netrebko was well-partnered with an all-Italian cast that had significantly more time to rehearse than she did. Francesco Meli, a singer popular at La Scala, is an old-school tenor right down to his imprecision of attack and tendency to croon when not singing full-out. With a shimmering, Italianate tone and limited capacity as an actor, his petulant Alfredo was sung with minimal strain and a fluidity not always heard among singers of his level.

It’s a shame that the octogenarian conductor Nello Santi showed such little affection for the music of both Alfredo and his father, as he kept Violetta’s music (as well as the music during the party scenes, curiously) at an indulgent, dirge pace but forced the both the men through their arias as well as with progressive, inflexible tempi.

This could have been at Netrebko’s request, but excerpts of a previous performance in the run with Ailyn Perez reveal a similar situation. Lengthy intervals and Santi’s lugubrious tempi brought the run time to an unnecessary three and a half hours that had me scrambling for the metro to Sesto before individual bows were taken.

The other seasoned professional in the cast was Leo Nucci, singing Giorgio Germont 40 years after his initial Scala debut. Much of the voice now sounds dry and husky, but the base tone remains even and his lowest notes, even though slid up to, are still quite beautiful. Neither his authoritative, inflexible characterization nor Santi’s relentless conducting allowed for much of that wonderful Verdi legato singing we know he’s capable of.

Baffled by a Violetta who responded so complexly when requested to leave Alfredo, Nucci’s Germont recoiled initially, but gradually came to appreciate Violetta if not understand her. His arc was satisfying to watch, but further rendered Alfredo a nonentity against Netrebko’s dominating dramatic prowess.

The supporting cast was all pulled from Scala mainstay comprimarios. Chiara Isotton lent her svelte, throaty mezzo to Flora’s music and Chiara Tirotta was an especially vigorous Annina. Alessandro Spina’s rich Dottor Grenvil showed shades of a potential future Germont if he has an upper extension, though Costantino Finutti wasn’t much more than a ragdoll as Barone Douphol.

The Act II party divertisments were joyfully danced by members of La Scala’s famous ballet corps and the Teatro alla Scala Chorus, despite sounding thin on the outset of the evening and grappling with glacial tempi, made a big sound during the Act II party. The Teatro alla Scala Orchestra responded to Santi’s choices with little discord though there was some occasional pitchiness from the winds.

The hyper-traditional 1990 production by Liliana Cavani, an assumedly reactionary revival after Dmitri Tcherniakov’s season-opening production of the opera was poorly received in 2013, is beautiful to behold and allowed Netrebko a degree of artistic freedom. It got the message across with some effective touches (Violetta watches the revelers pass by her window, for example), though such traditional productions are most effective when they have ample rehearsal time like they do in Europe.

From my seat at the back of a box, I could see where the brass was seated in the pit. After the sensational “Addio del Passato,” one trombone player turned to another, smiled, shook him, and said something lost in the crushing applause. They had been rooting for her. Netrebko’s engrossing performances have a duality about them; she renders tragic characters so effectively and believably, but her peerless singing and utter generosity somehow makes her success feel like our success. This Traviata was no different.