Natalie Dessay dons the infamous red cocktail dress in Willy Decker’s controversial 2005 Salzburg Festival staging of La Traviata, now playing at the Met.
Audiences were relieved to see Natalie Dessay, who had missed opening night, with this reviewer doubly relieved given that Dessay had stood him up in Paris Opera’s Manon in February.
Even having seen the Salzburg production on DVD, the images on stage are still startling. Set against a steeply curved, corrugated white wall, Violetta is pursued by a teeming throng of tuxedo-clad men, then lifted and paraded on a bright red sofa. Where the current Sydney season has the giant chandelier, this staging features a giant clock, inexorably ticking towards Violetta’s final moments of life. From the massive crowd of males comes the sound of female chorus singing, and it is soon realised that the women, for effect, are all dressed as men.
Alfredo’s difference from the society rakes is highlighted by his exclusion, and bullying, by the men. More stodgy than dashing, he is nonetheless playful in the opening of act two, where his two arias are set to a frisky game of hide and seek with Violetta. The country house is illustrated by incredibly lush floral fabric, which is not only seen draped over the furniture and as robes for the lovers but also hung as a massive backdrop. As Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont grinds down Violetta’s will, the colour drains from the backcloth leaving it in stark black and white.
The gender-bending of the chorus continues when they all don gypsy masks for Flora’s party. The giant clock becomes a roulette table, with the minute hand spun by the gamblers. A man taunts Violetta by donning her dress, a mockery which is heightened in the final act when carnival goers break into Violetta’s deathbed and put a beautiful young girl in the dress, a particularly cruel reminder of her loss of beauty and youth.
Seeing Dessay live was well worth the wait, her commitment and focus riveting throughout. Her singing, while possibly a little light on volume, is absolutely exquisite and it is her raw and emotional acting that really completes the picture. Beginning with her exhausted, staggering entrance to the death strains of the overture, Dessay is vulnerable and exposed, giving of herself completely with her performance.
Matthew Polenzani is a solid Alfredo, his gloriously rich tenor voice his greatest asset. His final note of “O Mio Rimorso” is excellent.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky must be the most handsome and sexy Giorgio in the world. His presence and power are unmatched in the role, his sheer enjoyment of performing shining through despite his commitment to the serious nature of the role. His voice in magnificent form, “Di Provenza il mar” is a showstopper on a scale usually only seen in musical theatre.
While Dessay nailed each and every one of her solo arias to perfection, the ultimate highlight of the evening is the extended scene between Dessay and Hvorostovsky as Violetta and Giorgio. To see two of the world’s greatest stars at the height of the powers both giving as good as they are receiving is one of those only-at-the-Met moments that is utterly spellbinding and unforgettable.
The highly unconventional staging still causing controversy, most theatregoers were heard arguing its merits and drawbacks on their way out. And isn’t that better than polite small talk while rushing for the subway?
La Traviata plays at the Metropolitan Opera House, NY until 2 May 2012. It is screened Live in HD at 1pm on Saturday 14 April and then relayed around the world.
Reviewed 8.30pm Tuesday 10 April 2012 at the Met.
Photos: #2 – 5: Simon Parris