Evergreen opera favourite La Traviata shines in a glossy, yet relatively simple staging that allows full, unfettered focus on the wonderful singers at hand.
Presented with three sets of lead singers in 2022-23, La Traviata clearly remains an extremely popular lynch pin of this or any season. As the current cast comes to the end of their run, the pre-curtain appearance of a Met representative with a microphone caused a sudden intake of breath across the auditorium. Thankfully, the message was just that Nadine Sierra would sing tonight but wanted the audience to know that was experiencing “seasonal allergies.” Cue 4000 grateful, yet sympathetic sighs of relief.
Director Michael Mayer stages a prologue for the death strings of the overture, presenting Violetta’s full deathbed contingent as a stately tableau. Violetta eventually rises, peers curiously at each of the gathered persons before exiting the stage, leaving her visitors shocked and mournful.
Mayer has Giorgio Germont actually bring his beloved daughter on stage, introducing her to Violetta at the first meeting to really tug on her heartstrings. As act three opens, Violetta has a fever dream where she sees the daughter walk down the aisle, respectably wearing a virginal white veil.
Replacing the well-worn Willy Decker La Traviata, this new 2018 staging has a far more opulent and realistic tone than the stark, high concept vision presented previously. Christine Jones’ scenic design appears to be specifically customised for the Met, with the gold textured proscenium arch of the house continued into a false proscenium frame. This gilded pattern continues over the whole set and is even picked up as a decorative element on the costumes.
The four scenes of the opera traverse the seasons, from spring to summer, then autumn and finally winter. An enormous round skylight overhead gives an indication of the weather, a theme that is also picked up in the costumes and lighting.
As the curtain opens for act two, it is clear that the same set will be used for the whole opera. Even the same bed is seen in the same position, with Alfredo and Violetta awakening in their country home.
The benefit of the single set pays off in the instant transition from scenes one to two of act two, the set suddenly aglow with tiny bud lights and a distinctly autumnal glow from the doorways for Flora’s party.
Entering for act one, the ensemble members look impeccably glamorous in vivid spring-toned, gold-trimmed costumes by Susan Hilferty (of Wicked fame). Later, Flora‘s guests sport darker shades in equally glamorous attire.
It would seem that party host Flora is very sympathetic to cultural appropriation, and so has replaced the usual dancers with sleek elves and fairies. Lorin Latarro’s sexually charged choreography is as entertaining to watch for the Met audience as it is for Flora’s hedonistic guests.
Clearly intimately acquainted with Verdi’s prized score, Italian maestro Daniele Callegari leads the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in a sensitive performance and carefully supports the lead singers in their moments of individual interpretation.
American soprano Sierra begins the evening in mature, full bodied form, greeting Violetta’s guests with generous grace.
As Alfredo meets his idol, Violetta, American tenor Stephen Costello appears somewhat stiff, presumably to convey the intimidated young man’s trepidation. As he begins to sing, Costello delivers a warm, ardently romantic tone that helps to generate strong chemistry with Sierra as Violetta. Both are in strong form for “Un dì, felice, eterea,” and the spark of romance is swiftly established.
Left alone on stage, Sierra appears to make the sets and costume melt away to the effect that we are suddenly at a one-woman recital. This is not to say that she drops the character or story; in fact, the exact opposite is true. Violetta’s vulnerability and then her headstrong abandon come through with sterling clarity. Singing downstage, Sierra sings an individualised coloratura at the end of “Ah, fors’è lui.” It is no exaggeration to say that you could have heard a pin drop at the Met, as the full house held their breath in rapt attention.
Further individual coloratura is heard in “Follie! Follie!” Finally, the audience erupts in enthusiastic applause as the act concludes on a stunning interpolated high E flat. As mentioned above, at this point, the connection between audience and singer is akin to a highly personal recital.
Costello begins act two in passionately stirring form, before the regrettable misstep of interpolating the high C at the end of “O mio rimorso!” without sufficient support to sing the note at its best. Costello goes on to fully redeem his performance with warmly expressive singing and intuitive emotional work with his co-stars.
As Giorgio, Italian baritone Luca Salsi pours forth with vocal power with seemingly little physical effort, allowing him to give a very naturalistic acting performance. Salsi’s smooth voice blends beautifully with Sierra’s; the finely calibrated sequence of stages in their extensive act two duet is a true pleasure to hear. Salsi also works harmoniously with Costello, the two practically sharing the emotional shorthand of a real father and son.
In the end, of course, it is Sierra’s night. Deathbed aria “Addio, del passato” leaves Sierra so devastated that it almost difficult to applaud, much as the most enthusiastic of applause is entirely warranted. Brava!
La Traviata plays at Met Opera, New York with a range of casts until 18 March 2023.
Photos: Met Opera