Monday March 18, 2013 - If I wanted to look at a white room with a sofa and a clock, I could stay home. I felt no need to actually see the Met's Willy Decker production of TRAVIATA tonight; I'd seen enough of it on the Internet. But - having followed Placido Domingo's career since some of his earliest performances at New York City Opera - I'm always curious to hear how he is faring in these late stages of his career. I went to the Met tonight especially to hear his Germont, and also simply to experience the Verdi masterpiece in the House: still the only legitimate place to hear opera.
I'm not opposed to updated productions (though why does no one backdate?) and think they are fine for festivals or college-level performances where budgets might make wearing clothes off the rack a viable situation. But I must say, opera loses much of its escapist allure as productions are now continually churned out in which the characters look like people we see at cocktail parties, at the office or on the subway platform. We are shown the ordinary in everything: men in suits, women in coats, hats and handbags or vaguely 50s evening frocks; military uniforms are very popular though they seldom indicate the time or place in which the opera is set. In an effort to make opera 'accessible' and to make the characters seem just like people we know and can relate to, opera becomes dreary. I don't go to the opera to see people onstage who are just as fucking boring as myself. There's no magic, and increasingly productions become interchangeable. So many operas could be staged on the sets and with the costumes of the Decker TRAVIATA....the entire repertoire, basically, with a few modifications (a chalice for PARSIFAL, an axe for ELEKTRA, and so forth).
So I cracked open my score this evening and let the theater of the imagination take over. Some very intrusive stage noises were a distraction as the evening went on, but for the most part TRAVIATA again cast its spell.
Alphonsine Plessis (sometimes called Marie Duplessis)...do you suppose anyone in the theater this evening gave a thought to her: the delicate courtesan on whom Marguerite Gautier - la dame aux camelias - was modeled and who we meet in the Verdi opera as Violetta Valery? Alphonsine died at the tender age of 23, her funeral attended by hundreds, her possessions sold off to cover her debts...
...her tomb at Montmartre still sought by romantics visiting the City of Light.
Alphonsine's story has haunted me for half a century, since I first discovered Verdi's LA TRAVIATA in the early 1960s via the Met broadcasts featuring Anna Moffo, Garbriella Tucci and Joan Sutherland. How clearly I remember listening to the strains of the prelude to the final act as the Winter evening light faded outside the windows of the big room in the house where I grew up. What a lure into the mystery and romance of the realm of opera!
And I'll never forget Milton Cross's voice describing the solo bow after her astonishing 'Sempre libera': "...Joan Sutherland, a camellia in her auburn hair..." Was it any wonder that I, a sad and lonely teenaged boy living in the middle of nowhere, fell in love with the whole intoxicating art form? It was my drug, sustaining me and offering an escape from the reality of being different from everyone else, suffocating in the small town with no hope in sight. It was to be years before I found my way into the larger world, and a decade before I found the courage to embrace it.
My first experience of seeing TRAVIATA live came 50+ years ago at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera where Licia Albanese was singing her 100th Violetta, opposite Barry Morell and Frank Guarrera. Albanese was a vision in a sumptuous white ball gown and a camellia wrist corsage. If her "Sempre libera" was a bit sketchy vocally, the woman next to me sang along and 'helped' the diva thru the scale passages and decorative florishes. Albanese's final scene was marvelous: "Teneste la promessa..." in her throaty, low speaking voice gave me the chills.
TRAVIATA went on to be the opera I've seen most often; my list of Violettas is long and magical: Brooks, Moffo, Caballe, Pilou, Niska, Zylis-Gara, Mauti-Nunziata, Soviero, Anderson, Vaness, Christos, Tomowa-Sintov, Cotrubas, Maliponte, Racette, Fleming, Hong...and a dozen more. The Beaton (Met) and Corsaro (NYCO) productions set high standards, yet I loved Andrei Serban's updated production at Juilliard (1981) where the ballet was vociferously booed for following the libretto. An intimate performance in Boston was done without chorus: the gambling scene was a bridge game, Sarah Reese was a vocally opulent Violetta, and it was all done on a shoestring.
Tonight I could not see anything of the stage from my score desk, which is just as well. People around me argued as to whether the Decker production is a revelation or a desecration. It hardly matters: we're stuck with it whether we like it or not.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin led a very fast-paced performance though it never seemed rushed. By taking only one intermission - after 'Sempre libera' surprisingly - the evening was far more cogent than most Met nights where the interminable Gelb intermissions drain the life out of even the greatest operas. By performing the rest of the opera without even a pause between acts the evening swept on to its inexorable tragic ending.
Diana Damrau was hailed by many as a great Violetta; for me she lacks the main attribute that makes a singer memorable: a unique and immediately identifiable timbre. It's not her fault: this is the voice she was born with. Within minutes of the fall of the final curtain I could not remember what she sounded like; I could recall some of the effects of her singing but not the sound of the voice itself. I'd never be able to identify it in a 'blind' sampling whereas a single phrase by a Brooks, a Caballe or a Maliponte would unleash a flood of welcome memories of their performances. In general Damrau's is a rather steely sound, and she seemed a bit unsettled in Act I. Perhaps in an effort to bring an Italianate feel to the music, she goes into a kind of pushed chesty resonance on notes below 'middle' G. Her coloratura was sometimes a bit hectic, and despite some nice dynamic variety it is not a very colourful instrument.
With the entry of Placido Domingo in Act II the opera began to gel and Ms. Damrau's singing took on a more expressive quality. Much of the opera's final scene was sung in piano/pianissimo gradations to lovely effect. Her control here was truly admirable and I was finally able to admire her on vocal terms.
Salvatore Cordella replaced Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo, seemingly at the last minute since the change was announced over the loudspeaker rather than by a sign in the lobby or a slip in the Playbill. I know nothing about Mr. Cordella, but suffice it to say he did not sound young. The voice was unsteady and despite some nice blendings in duets with Ms. Damrau the tenor did not make more than a middling impression.
I've been on the full journey of Placido Domingo's career til now: his early performances as Don Jose and Don Ottavio (!) at New York City Opera; the scary season when all his higher notes went hoarse; the thrill of being at his unexpected Met debut in ADRIANA LECOUVREUR after he seemed to have solved his vocal problem; his earliest conducting efforts; predictions of vocal disaster when he tackled OTELLO rather earlier than expected. And then an ongoing march thru the repertoire opposite such immortals as Tebaldi, Nilsson, Price, Scotto, Caballe, Freni, Sutherland, Verrett, Troyanos, Bumbry, Cossotto, and Horne, culminating with Wagner (Lohengrin, Siegmund and Parsifal), and then moving into baritone roles.
Some of the queens at Parterre or on The List have been kvetching over Domingo's Germont: "...will he never stop?" or "...the voice is all wrong for the music..." (only Verdi could decide that). There were suggestions that Domingo 'huffed and puffed' during the big aria at the prima. So I had no concrete idea what to expect, but I thought that if his Simon Boccanegra was any indication then I might find things to like in his Germont.
It was quite frankly a wonderful performance; speaking of voices that are immediately recognizable, Domingo's remains at the top of the list. The sound is burnished and still quite plush, and he has the gift for turning a Verdian phrase with a naturalness that can only develop from years of experience. I heard no huffing or puffing, just an emotionally resonant rendering of the music. Kindly calibrating his volume to suit the soprano, Domingo still could not help but dominate the great Violetta/Germont duet: it was his voice that one listened to both here and in the ensembles of the later acts. "Di provenza" for my money was a moving experience; following in the score I would give Domingo high marks for musicianship here. I do not like the cabaletta that follows, but Domingo made it more palatable than any other singer I've heard having a go at it. So I was very glad to have added another chapter to my Domingo saga; there was an old-time explosion of cheers as he came out to bow. Instead of carping, I feel we should be grateful for an opportunity to savor one of the few remaining connections to the last Golden Age.
Kyle Pfortmiller (d'Obigny) and Jason Stearns (Douphol) made strong impressions, Patricia Risley was a musically accurate Flora (not always the case in this role) and Maria Zifchak a vocally warm Annina. In the few lines accorded to Violetta's servant Giuseppe, chorus tenor Juhwan Lee sounded really good: I wish he'd sung Alfredo.
Perusing the Playbill during the intermission, I found the director's two-and-a-half page "production note" which opens with the statement: "LA TRAVIATA is a piece about death." No shit, Sherlock. I don't want the Zeffirelli production back, but some crinolines and camellias would be nice.
Metropolitan Opera House
March 18, 2013
Baron Douphol...........Jason Stearns
Marquis D'Obigny........Kyle Pfortmiller
Dr. Grenvil.............James Courtney