Time is running out for Violetta (Sonya Yoncheva) and Alfredo (Michael Fabiano) in ‘La Traviata”.Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
“Croce e delizia al cor!”Torment and delight of the heart! That’s how the bestotted youth Alfredo explains the emotion of love to the seemingly unfeeling courtesan Violetta in the first act of Verdi’sLa Traviata.
And, perhaps not so coincidentally, that phrase sums up how one must feel about the Met’s current revival of this masterpiece as heard last Friday. There is delight at seeing and hearing one of the finestTraviatas in decades, but it’s mixed up with the torment of knowing that Willy Decker’s magnificent staging of this piece will vanish from New York at the end of this season, never to return.
Decker’s stark take on the familiar “Lady of the Camellias” story strips away both period detail and sentimentality, leaving behind a harrowing account of how a woman who defies sexual mores is marginalized and eventually destroyed by a disapproving patriarchy.
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Against a monumental and unvarying setting of cold white stone, free-loving Violetta is the only flash of color in a scarlet cocktail dress, surrounded by a crowd of taunting men in identical tuxedoes. At the height of her popularity, she cavorts atop a lipstick-colored sofa held aloft by her admirers; later, rejected, she collapses in the middle of an empty stage as those dearest to her turn their heads away in revulsion.
Five years before this staging came to the Met, it was a sensation at the 2005 Salzburg Festival starring the electrifying team of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. But even that pair, as documented on video, do not surpass the Met’s current casting of soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Michael Fabiano.
Yoncheva combines a genuine glamour voice—a sound both beautiful and hauntingly complex—with a rare honestly of expression. Her singing is refreshingly frank and open, with the virtuousity the bravura role of Violetta requires always kept in the background. Only in retrospect do you stop to recall the smoothness of her scales, the brilliance of her high notes, or the dynamic variety she brought to lyrical passages.
Her approach to the character is so offbeat that at first it felt like a mistake. Generally we first see Violetta in a manic mood, glittering as she greets her party guests. Yoncheva adopted curiously casual, even sloppy body language, as if we had caught the heroine toward the end of a bender. Eventually, it all made sense: the courtesan, diagnosed with incurable tuberculosis, is deliberately numbing her feelings.
How that contrasted with Fabiano’s white-hot take on her young lover Alfredo! Again, what we mostly see in this part is puppy love, but from the tenor’s first entrance—lurching into the room as if he’d been shoved—Fabiano played the character as an obsessive, almost a stalker. (Early on, Alfredo reveals that he has been watching Violetta from afar for a whole year. Yoncheva’s reaction to this piece of information could best be described as guarded.)
The relationship that develops between them may be romantic, but it’s definitely not healthy. After Violetta leaves Alfredo (for the noblest possible reasons) he confronts her at a party and—per the libretto—throws cash at her. Decker’s staging amplifies this moment having Alfredo seize handfuls of banknotes and shove them up the courtesan’s skirt, into her bodice and even into her mouth.
Essentially, he rapes her with money, and here Fabiano flew into such a black-eyed rage that one momentarily feared for Yoncheva’s safety. (She was all right, of course, but the feeling of nausea at seeing a woman’s body violated hung on through the ensemble that finished the act.)
What’s miraculous here is that Fabiano’s singing if anything surpassed his acting. His tenor is a dark, muscular sound with a lively vibrato that quickens in moments of high emotion. The effect is pure frisson, like feeling a knife blade drawn across the skin. He can also scale the sound back to a caressing mezza voce, though even there there is a hint of danger behind the velvet. “What the hell is he up to?” you’d think as he began an aria, but by the final note you’d have changed your mind completely: “But this is what the piece is all about. How could I have missed that before?” In a word, this was a revelatory performance.
I felt a little sorry for baritone Thomas Hampson as Alfredo’s father Germont, who yelled and hectored but scarcely sang a note all night long. He did manage, however, to keep up with this colleagues dramatically, creating a disturbing portrait of a middle-aged fussbudget terrified of human contact.
Besides Hampson, the only weak spot was conductor Nicola Luisotti, who seemed to echo Germont’s stiffness with hard, inflexible tempos and unvariegated tone colors. It was a performance that might pass muster in an ordinary production ofTraviata, but in such special surroundings felt fatally pedestrian.
What really makes the torment kick in here is the feeling that Peter Gelb’s Met is now shying away from this kind of risk-taking production. What looked to be one of the highlights of next season,La Forza del Destinodirected by the provocative Calixto Bieto, has been indefinitely postponed, while two other productions,NormaandTosca, by the all-but-moribund David McVicar remain on the 2017-2018 schedule.
One of the messages of Decker’sTraviatais that, just like love, art is inherently dangerous. It’s a lesson that seems to have gone over the head of the Met.
Yoncheva a blazing Violetta in Met’s highly charged “Traviata”
Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabiano in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl
Willy Decker’s production ofLa Traviata, which first came to the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, is the sort that gives ample room to its title character. A spare staging that hinges on just a handful of starkly symbolic gestures—a couch, a clock, a bathrobe—it offers a vast space for a lead soprano to fill.
In the current run of Verdi’s classic tragedy at the Met, Sonya Yoncheva has no trouble filling that space. Her interpretation of the meteoric heroine has earned every ounce of the praise that has been heaped on it.
From the beginning, her Violetta is a ferocious force, driven by the knowledge of her impending death to live as fast a life as she can, even if it only hastens her demise. The sudden entrance of Alfredo into her life grounds her momentarily, just as their separation puts her back on her downward spiral. In following the turbulent arc of Violetta, Yoncheva brings a vivid, breathing character to the stage—few are the sopranos who can bring a listener to tears simply by reading a letter aloud.
Few, too, are the sopranos who command so powerfully rich a voice and can tie a vocal interpretation so closely together with a dramatic one. In Wednesday night’s performance there was an electric thrill in her sound, making her spirited “Sempre libera” feel like a manifesto. She lost nothing when turning down her intensity, giving a breathtaking account of “Addio, bel passato,” her melancholy resignation heartbreaking.La Traviatais often cited as an opera that pushes the boundaries of suspended disbelief, teased for having a young woman sing fortissimo as she succumbs to tuberculosis. In Yoncheva’s riveting final moments, one heard a woman fighting fiercely to stay alive, only to collapse at last, exhausted, as though she’d sung herself to death.
Michael Fabiano’s portrayal of Alfredo Germont was a little unusual. More brawny than brilliant, his tenor is on the far dark side of the role, powering through in his middle voice and—in Wednesday’s performance, at least—spreading considerably on anything above a G. Rather than the passion of a youth in love for the first time, there was a compulsive drive about him that matched Yoncheva’s worldly determination and grew disturbing as his obsession turned violent. Unable to flash clear high notes, he was most compelling in his duets with her, particularly the poignant “Parigi, o cara” in his final moments together with his beloved Violetta.
Thomas Hampson was too ill to go on Wednesday as Germontpère, opening the door for his cover, Nelson Martínez, to become the surprise star of the evening, sporting a cavernous, mahogany voice of generous size and wooly texture. He was a little stiff when he first entered, projecting almost too much authority, yet this made his transition to humility only more effective, as he melted into the tender “Pura, siccome un angelo” and the sighing aria “Di Provenza il mar,” in which he pleads with Alfredo to come home.
Nicola Luisotti’s direction from the pit was neither especially polished nor especially adventurous. He often sounded a step or two out of sync with the leads, and largely took stiff, conventional tempos. Where he succeeded was in creating texture, drawing a luminous sound out of the orchestra and capturing the character of the score even when a little out of sorts. The Met Opera chorus, called on significantly in this opera, acquitted itself admirably, singing with glowing beauty while still managing to make itself the imposing presence called for in Decker’s austere vision.
Though not the largest of the supporting roles in the score, Doctor Grenvil in this production is a major presence, ever looming in his black trench as a memento mori. The kindly warmth of James Courtney’s voice only emphasized the contradiction in the doubling, bringing the soothing spectre of “Death and the Maiden” instantly to mind. Jane Bunnell sounded a little worn as Violetta’s attendant Annina, but brought matronly care to the role.
Rebecca Jo Loeb’s mezzo sparkled darkly as the Parisian socialite Flora while Jeff Mattsey’s brassy baritone rang in the role of D’Obigny. Scott Scully sang with a reedy tenor as the obsequious Vicomte Gastone and Dwayne Croft showed off a full, woody bass as Baron Douphol, Alfredo’s momentary rival.
As brilliant as this performance was on its own terms, it was also a testament to the enduring power of Verdi’s work, packing astonishing emotional power into a mere two-and-a-half hours—barely a minute, in operatic terms. Next Tuesday’s performance ofLa Traviatawill be the one thousandth in the history of the company. Here’s to a thousand more.
La Traviata runs through April 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. Carmen Giannatasio assumes the role of Violetta beginning March 22, and Atalla Ayan appears as Alfredo beginning March 29. George Petean appears as Giorgio Germont beginning March 29, with Plácido Domingo assuming the role from April 8. The matinee performance on Saturday, March 11 will be broadcast live in HD.metopera.org