Two friends had an extra ticket (in the orchestra!) for the Metropolitan Opera and invited me to join them to see Guiseppe Verdi’s La Traviata with libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and based on Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias. (Dumas is the son of the author of The Three Musketeers.) The novel and play are based on the Dumas’ life. Most people are familiar with the story from the many movie versions – Camille, the story of a courtesan, who is dying of TB, falls in love, breaks her beloved’s heart when she leaves him so that society will not turn their back on him, he forgives her, and she dies. Opera.
This is a contemporary production with a very stark set. As the audience is getting to their seats the curtain is up. We can see a gray amphitheater with a bench along the wall. On one side is a giant double door and the other has a huge clock leaning against the wall with Doctor Grenvil (Luigi Roni) sitting next to it in a black trench coat. He hovers around like Death frightening Violetta Valéry (Hei-Kyung Hong) until the end when she embraces him. Violetta enters dragging her feet, sick, and weary. She’s wearing a bright red party dress and red high heels but she doesn’t brighten up until the guests arrive and she gives them what they want – all smiles and happy energy. The people at the party are all dressed in black suits and are played by both the male and female chorus.
When Alfredo Germont (Matthew Polenzani) convinces Violetta to love him as he loves her and they go to the country the set is a bunch of sofas covered in floral cloth. Each of them is wearing robes of the same material and the back wall is covered in the same flowered cloth. When Giorgio Germont (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo, she takes the cloth off each sofa revealing a white sofa underneath and all the color drains from the flowers on the back wall.
Besides ticking away the minutes of Violetta’s life the clock also serves as a roulette table and a bed when Violetta is dying.
Choreographer Athol Farmer also has a featured role as one of the guests who dresses as Violeta and teases Alfredo during the masked ball. The choreography is very good. At one point the chorus backs out the door singing and it wasn’t until they were all gone that I realized they’d taken all the sofas with them. It was very subtle. And when Alfredo rages at Violetta it is actually a little scary. The party guests are very menacing while not being violent – it’s very well done.
I found one fault with Willy Decker’s production – a lot of the action takes place upstage and it was difficult sometimes to hear the solos, especially Hong. But the opera moves quickly and I barely glanced at the subtitles because the direction made the action easy to follow. Set and costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann, associate costume designer Susana Mendoza, and lighting designer Hans Toelstede all did a great job.
This was my first time seeing this opera but I thought conductor Fabio Luisi did a wonderful job.
Others in the cast were Kyle Pfortmiller (Marquis d’Obigny), Patricia Risley (Flora Bervoix), Jason Stearns (Baron Douphol), Scott Scully (Gastone), Peter Volpe (Gentleman), Juwan Lee (Giuseppe), and Joseph Turi (Messenger). Among the featured singers I thought Maria Zifchak was a stand-out as Annina.
Hvorostovsky received the most applause of the night and he deserved it.
Violetta was supposed to be played by Natalie Dessay but she was ill. It turns out she was ill on opening night also and Hong filled in for her then. I thought Hong did a very good job but her acting is not as good as her voice and she sounded weak during some moments when I don’t think she was supposed to. But overall she did an admirable job.
At the end of the intermission General Manager Peter Gelb came out to lead a tribute to principal timpanist Richard Horowitz, who was retiring from the Metropolitan Orchestra after 66 years. Sixty-six years! He started with the orchestra right after World War II. Horowitz stood quietly while there was a prolonged applause from the audience. Horowitz is a craftsman, who has made all the batons for James Levine. Horowitz is also a man of very words. It was fun being able to pay tribute to him.