Met Opera La Traviata review

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.

Met Opera La Traviata Dessay.jpg

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

26 replies »

  1. I saw it this afternoon and I’ve not seen this opera before. I LOVED the set and the performance were great.

    It looked like they were broadcasting it to theaters so people can judge for themselves but I like it live.

    Saw The Valkeries last night. I know reviewers panned it. I liked it too. And, yes, I thought the set was pretty cool.

    • Thanks for your comment Siggy – sound like we have similar taste in opera! I was at Valkeries on Friday night as well.
      These broadcasts are fantastic when I am back home in Australia but there certainly is nothing like seeing opera live at the Met.
      Since you have not seen La Traviata before, this was a great one to see as your first. We just had a La Traviata in Australia that was outdoors on Sydney Harbour- amazing!
      Keep enjoying opera at the Met!

  2. Katy – I have to say I loved the performances, especially Hvorostovsky’s and Natalie Dessay was brilliant, but I hated the staging as did the people I went with. I have seen La Traviata several times and much prefer the traditional set

    • Hi Katy, I definitely agree with you about the performances!
      I think there are some clever ideas in the staging but the traditional setting and costumes are so beautiful. I hope that there are not too many people who are seeing this production as the only version they have seen as it will not give them the full picture of what La Traviata can really be like.

  3. I never saw opera until a few months ago and I’ve only seen it at The Met so I’m not sure I’m a good barometer of taste in opera but I know what i like. And I guess I won’t be seeing another version because this is the way The Met will do it going forward. I heard similar complaints about the Tosca set. But guess what. I liked that set too ! Not that I don’t like the kitchen sink sets. I loved Aida and that set was loaded.

    Anyway, I’m going back to see La Traviata again this week.

    • Wow you are doing really well for someone who has not seen opera until a few months ago. This is my first Ring cycle and I have been going to the opera for over twenty years! Luckily you have access to the Met so you can catch up on such a great range of operas quite quickly since they show so many. We do not have such a full schedule of performances in Australia.
      I am returning to La Traviata here as well, but not until early May. Hopefull all will be well and we will both see the wonderful Natalie Dessay again!

  4. “! I was at Valkeries on Friday night as well.”

    I forgot to ask. Did you see about 20-30 minutes into the third act when the Windows Logo was projected on to “The Machine” pillars for about 2 seconds. I prefer to think it was a novel product placement rather than a software glitch.

    • Siggy you are very generous to describe that Windows logo glitch as novel product placement! It certainly gave the audience a jolt. I wonder if someone was fired over that! At least they have a bit of a gap until part 3 on Saturday to make sure everything is working fine. I am looking forward to seeing what The Machine does next!

  5. This is not a staged opera. This is a concert opera on a football field with lots of exercise, some acting, and the stupidest ‘symbolism’ ever conceived. If I want to watch people getting dressed, I can stay home. That said, the singing was excellent, especially Hvorostovsky. And fortunately almost nobody ever ruins Verdi’s score on this. That part was good. If you go see it again, keep your eyes closed.

    • Having seen La Traviata six times in the past six months around the world I was happy to see this different version (with such amazing singers) but I agree that it is not the best version for the Met to have as their main production of La Traviata. This staging was conceived to impress audience’s at the Salzburg Festival and it does seem to be a bit of a mistake to have it as a mainstream production at the Met. A more traditional La Traviata can be so beautiful!
      In terms of the symbolism, I did like the part where the colour drained from the floral backdrop as Violetta gave in to Giorgio. I actually don’t know how they did that effect!
      Hopefully we will see a more traditional staging return to the Met sometime soon.

  6. Yeh, I saw it again tonight. At it was sold out again, except for standing room only way upstairs wherever that means. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the family circle where you need a tube of oxygen.

    Some grumbling around me at intermission about the set. I don’t think a negative message will get through when people keep giving a standing O at the end and when they keep buying tickets.

    • True! And casting big stars attracts audiences which covers the fact that they might not like the set. Will be interesting to see how it goes in future with lesser names in the cast.

      I hope that all the leads were on last night. I read that Dessay withdrew half way through the other night.

      I am going again next Wednesday so I hope all the leads are on then. I was disappointed not to see Paulo Szot on Monday (4/23) when I went back to Manon.

      • “I read that Dessay withdrew half way through the other night”

        Yes, a women told me that pre-show because she was speculating on whether Dessay would perform. She did and she seemed fine to me.

        I can only tie a few performers names to their faces so I don’t know the Manon singer.

  7. I saw it again tonight with the understudy who I thought was fine but I liked Dessay better.

    For people that think this production isn’t doing well — it was again sold out. Very sold out.

    • Was that your thrd time Siggy? Wow.
      I was there tonight as well. Disappointed not to see Dessay but not entirely surprised. Her replacement did extremely well though.
      How was the applause and cheering for Hvorostovsky (Alfredo’s father) in act two?! He is on fire at the moment!
      Polenzani (Alfredo) sounded excellent tonight as well. His diction is amazing and I love his big high note just after he has gotten dressed.
      And how about the Timpanist who retired after 66 years? I wish I was that sprightly!

      • Yes, three times for traviatta. And the father seems to get as much or more applause than the star. I like Alfredo too. I may have seen him in the fall. Maybe he was in Don Giovanni.

        Why were you not surprised about Dessay ? Because she has recently been ill or because this is typical for her ? She only did 2-1/2 out of 5 shows I think.

        Yes, 66 year run for the musician. Very impressive. Like Gelb said, that guy must have seen it all (and I bet knows where all the bones are buried too).

        I was told by someone that went to today’s Billy Budd dress rehearsal that the BB set is very impressive. I’ll probably try to pick up a ticket.

        I forgot to mention. It’s a different conductor for Macropolus case. If that matters to you. I only tout it because it was one of the bigger positive surprises for me. And apparently they do not perform this opera at The Met very often. Night I saw it the program said it was only the 15th time it has been performed at The Met. Contrast with Traviatta tonight. Number 977.

      • I guess my comment about Dessay is psrrtky answered by what you have written here- that she performed 2.5 out of 5 times. It must have been quite serious for her to miss the opening night.
        I have to wonder if she pushed herself to come back for the cinema broadcast. The night I saw her perform was the performance before the broadcast, and the cameramen etc were having their trial run of filming it.
        Dessay disappointed me in February this year when I went to Paris to see her in Manon and she did not perform. If she has a serious ongoing difficulty then I really wish her all the best as she is such an exquisite singer and a brilliant performer.

      • I saw Billy Budd this evening and I didn’t like it. It was hard to stay awake.

      • Hi Siggy,you have me worried now. I am seeing Billy Budd on Thursday and we have liked a lot of the same operas! The impressive set didn’t help?
        I don’t know the opera really at all so that is probably more of a worry. Maybe I should exchange it for The Makropulos Case.

      • The audience (a rather old audience relative to other productions) seemed to like it. To me, BB was singing a play – a not very interesting play. You could argue M-case is a singing play too but I think it works a lot better in Czech though I’m not sure why. I didn’t like the BB music much either.

        If you haven’t seen M-case I would go for that. But if you have, you may as well see BB. Don’t go by me. What do I know about Opera ?

        Maybe I’ll give BB one more shot. I have a feeling they won’t be doing it or M-case for a long time after this season.

  8. PS, if you haven’t seen The Macropolus Case I thought it excellent. Very well received by The Met audience and surprisngly (because the guy seems to dislike everything) very well reviewed by The New York Times.

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