Willy Decker’s stark take on La Traviata at the Met

Giving lie to the assertion that the old ‘Metro only stops at great performances at the Met or that a certain critical acumen has been lost over these many many seasons, let’s start by saying that the Willy Decker production of La Traviata should move on to the next station of its life, wherever that may be. Oblivion perhaps?

Recovering from repair work in the winter of 2011 and not even riding the ‘Metro at that time, I missed reviewing the opening run of this current Traviata, thinking to myself, but also out loud to anyone who’d listen, well, I have the DG DVD of the production’s premiere at Salzburg in 2005, it’s an impact production, Oh surely you've seen it and probably remember all of the surrounding hype...It was Anna Netrebko’s ‘a star is born’ moment. She was hot!

Finally this season in the house I was impacted. Decker’s Traviata heightens our awareness that a wealth-and-power driven male dominated society chews up beautiful young women for pleasure but then spits out what’s left of them and moves on to the next delicious morsel.* Once discarded, thrown back down to the disadvantaged layers of society, in which living conditions are poor, heat and food scarce, adequate health care denied, they will suffer greatly. Some things never change I guess. Okay, so Decker’s production touches on current politics.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta

Sonya Yoncheva is the beautiful young soprano this season in La Traviata, following in a long line of the other beautiful young sopranos who have essayed the role at the Met since 2011. Yoncheva’s Violetta is solidly sung, full out, even thrilling at times. She moves well on stage, deserving of the spotlight and the center of our attention.

Gone are the days of the lace frills, the hooped skirts and that ‘Zeffirelli’ attention to scenic and costume detail: Violetta is either in a form-fitting red dress or, alternatively, wearing the white slip beneath, the former when she’s being social with (and therefore oppressed by) her men friends (and women) in tuxedo black. They paw at her, lift her, pass her around. The white slip is when she is intimate with Alfredo or on her death bed, which actually is not a part of this production. The bed, I mean.

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva as Alfredo and Violetta in Act II

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva as Alfredo and Violetta in Act II

Somewhat sad and touching is the moment when, in the last scene during the Carnival music, the men and women, formal attire in disarray, masks askew, carry in a new beautiful young woman in a red dress. The ailing Violetta knows the truth. Her time is up.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is a committed Alfredo Germont: passionate, caring, supportive, angry and repenting. But what are we to make of the fact that he is not by Violetta’s bedside at the end, or, actually the is bed missing, see above, at least supporting her or sprawled out beside her on the floor? Has he now become detached, suddenly without a soul?

And his father Giorgio Germont, sung by veteran baritone Thomas Hampson (who also sang Germont in that 2005 Salzburg premiere) makes no bones about the fact that he sincerely supports the status quo and will most likely hasten Violetta’s death. He too is uncaring and passive at the end, as is Annina (sung by Jane Bunnell).

James Courtney is the omnipresent Doctor Grenvil, insistent on Violetta’s awareness that her time is running out (hence the big Clock). Dwayne Croft is the Baron. The guests and other sycophants include Jeff Mattsey as the Marquis, Rebecca Jo Loeb as Flora, Scott Scully as Gastone and so on.

Nicola Luisotti acquitted himself well with Verdi’s wonderful score. The Met’s Chorus seemed game for anything and everything, playing their roles with gusto and joie..

Violetta must leave Alfredo, thus ending her happiness

Violetta must leave Alfredo, thus ending her happiness

But back to the production. Though the aforementioned DVD from Salzburg 2005 accurately “sets the stage” for the Decker Traviata in the house, it also distracts from its faults. Yes, there is a callous energy to the chorus of gawkers, something usually lost in productions cluttered with fancy props and pillars. But in person I found the playing area of this stage most of the time far too big and too brightly lit for any intimacy. the chorus mainly doing variations on a behavioral theme. Further, depending on where the singers are placed (and where you’re sitting) the curved wall surrounding the rear of the stage does funny things with the voices. Frequent close ups and microphones in an HD telecast will correct for this, but be prepared in the house.

As to the sociological take on Traviata, the issues staged here are certainly not lost beneath a hooped skirt in a traditional staging. One admires the impact of Decker’s energetic conception…once.

Soprano Carmen Giannattasio joins the cast as Violetta on March 22.

Reviewed performance: March 4, 2017

Photos: Marty Sohl.

*Thinking about this more: paradoxically, the Decker production itself chews up beautiful young sopranos for the central role of Violetta. Better grab it while you’re young! The demands of the staging most likely prevent sopranos past a certain age and size from essaying the physical part well on stage.

Enjoy! Saturday night was close to Arctic temperatures with the wind…ugh! But a warm night overall.