Director: Michael Mayer; Designer: Christine Jones; Costumes: Susan Hilferty: Conductor: Yannick Neet-Seguin; Chorus Master: Michael Palumbo; with Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Quinn Kelsey, Kristin Chavez, Dwayne Croft, Maria Zifchak
A hotshot new music director. A theatre director “who pushes the envelope”. An “acclaimed” set designer and an international cast in a classic opera by a master composer about the ruinous effects of obsessive love.
But there was something wrong with this picture.
Because the funny thing about opera is that each one looks “complete” on the page but has to be incarnated on the stage to fully come alive, or as the great living American composer Philip Glass has remarked ” the music in the library isn’t music till it’s performed. ” .
This observation is so obvious that it almost defies comprehension.
But multiple Tony winner Michael Mayer’s overheated but low voltage new production of Verdi’s seminal mid career “La Traviata ” (1853) may look like yesterday’s potatoes when it gets revived at the Met in April 2019 with a different cast and with Nicola Luisotti and another conductor in the pit. Who knows? But the real loser here is the composer, his expert longtime librettist Francesco Maria Piave, and last but certainly not least the audience who has been primed by the august and never wrong The New York Times that this will be the second coming but trust me it wasn’t.
Mayer doesn’t seem to know that the first and last duty of a director is to reveal the piece at hand, and dare I say it again ? — reveal — meaning show what the piece in its essence is, and of this Mayer apparently has no clue. And he thinks his new film of Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya” will be great because he’s got a super cameraman, big expensive lady stars, and was in the audience for the filming of late great French director Louis Malle’s film of “Vanya” which reveals the thoroughgoing self-absorption of Chekhov’s characters to a tee.
But what was the Met thinking when it engaged German soprano Diana Damrau as Verdi’s consumptive courtesan Violetta Valery; Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez as her lover Alfredo Germont; and Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as Alfredo’s understandably protective father Giorgio Germont whose son could have chosen a nice girl rather than a party girl who has had a string of lovers but can’t seem to break the habit and yes of course she’s dying. But Verdi’s story, adapted by Piave from Dumas fils’ fictionalization of his affair with the model for Violetta, asks lots of questions about the difference between love fake — Violetta has been taken in more ways than one — and love real, and this conflict — did I choose right or did I choose wrong ?– is something which seems to shadow almost everyone’s lives. But I knew something was wrong when I heard the live stream of Act II when I was visiting my sweet new Met Opera Shop friends because Damrau’s vibrato was way too wide, and when I saw her performing Violetta a few days later the whole thing evaporated on the Met’s cavernous stage — the house seats 3,800 and I was three rows from the top — even when lots of things were happening like the “Brindisi” in Act I or the dance with bare-chested hunks in the party scene that closes Act II, which at least had some theatrical juice.
But Damrau, Florez, and Kelsey made a lopsided and unconvincing trio. Damrau has apparently made a successful career by singing classic bel canto parts, but if she doesn’t bring new life to them like Callas or Radvanovksy what’s the point? Or is it because she can sing Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria in Magic Flute which is one of her big calling cards? But Damrau was wan throughout — the ugly spot lighting from the ceiling over her in one moment didn’t help — as was Florez who hardly registered as her ardent lover, save fitfully, in Act I, and hardly at all in the central confrontation between Damrau. Florez,and Kelsey which is the heart of Act II. Kelsey’s voice had a hint of gravitas which isn’t saying much. He was much better as Rigoletto in San Francisco Opera’s 2016 production of Verdi’s eponymous 1851 opera directed by Rob Kearley who made incisive staging decisions, and his set and lighting designers Michael Yeargen and Gary Marder gave the story the visual/psychological heft so sorely lacking in this “Traviata.”
Yet the big failure of this production was its conception of Violetta, and it may be unfortunate that Mayer and company’s take on her fate ended up in the middle of America’s latest sanctimonious new trend — the #METOO movement — where everyone seems to function as witness, judge and jury. Indeed the “touching ” between Damrau and Florez was so decorous you’d think they had no experience in bed, and in Paris no less. Violetta may have been a smart, charming, and beautiful woman but she wasn’t a nun. And let’s not forget that Verdi wanted his first production at Venice’s La Fenice to be set in his present — 1852 — so that it would mirror the mores of his time when the bourgeoisie finally had access to just about everything, as the aristocracy had in the eighteenth century “No wigs!” he complained. He wasn’t judging, but watching, and everything the audience needs to know is reflected “complete” in his score.
But what was happening or rather not happening in the pit didn’t help.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin may have tried to achieve a balance between the singers on stage and the musicians but his tempos and his phrasing frequently felt wrong. There was little to no rubato in the opening prelude, and the whole first act sounded rushed. Act II, which transitions from grand opera into something closer to a play, and is therefore harder to pull off, just sat there, while the concluding Act III zipped to its tragic end almost like an afterthought, the whole performance anemic despite its “muscular ” busyness, and academic in Nezet-Seguin’s presumed “fidelity ” to the text, and if this is the new normal at perhaps the greatest Verdi house in the world we’re all in trouble.
But then there’s always La Divina Callas in her deservedly legendary date as Violetta with the still underappreciated conductor Carlo Maria Giulini in the 1954 Luchino Visconti production at La Scala which you can hear live on www.youtube.com. And Willy Decker’s trenchant production which distills the essence of the piece. The entire 2005 Salzburg premiere production with Anna Netrebko, as Violetta is live on www.youtube.com, as is the same production, revived several times at the Met; the best Violettas and Alfredos in it are Sonya Yoncheva and Michael Fabbiano, the best Germont the peerless late Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky — which you can see by googling
11.xii- 18 — 5.i.19
C 2019 MICHAEL MCDONAGH