Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Verdi: La Traviata (Metropolitan Opera, April 14, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show I picked out was a recent Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata, originally presented live in movie theatres on the date of the performance — April 14, 2012 — and shown locally on KPBS on September 2. It was an annoying production because of the staging by Willy Decker and the idiotic set and costume designs by Wolfgang Gussmann. Ironically, Fanfare magazine’s current (November-December 2012) issue has a review of a Traviata DVD with the same singer as Violetta, Natalie Dessay, from Aix-en-Provence in 2011, and judging from Barnaby Rayfield’s comments, its production was just as stupid as this one: “Are there lots of chairs symbolically arranged, instead of a set? Yup. Is the black back wall papered over with lots of limp video projection? You betcha. Does the chorus make the same three dance moves and vaguely gypsyesque hand movements as in every other single opera production of all time, regardless of which time it’s set in? Why, indeed, yes. Does the baddie … have a minimalist, postmodern, painted-on eye mask, instead of a real one? Yes, contractual obligation, you know. Also, how the hell do you make Natalie Dessay look dumpy? It takes a rare genius to do that.” Well, Willy Decker’s staging isn’t quite as bad as the one by Don Kent described by Rayfield, but it’s certainly giving it a run for the money: instead of a bunch of chairs, we have four couches; and instead of a blank black wall behind the participants, there’s a set of a blank grey wall, looking like the outside of an industrial building made of concrete rebar. Dessay’s Violetta wears a red dress and, apparently, nothing else — except in the first scene of Act II (the first of three scenes of Act II, since for some unfathomable reason the Met decided to do Traviata in two acts instead of three, and instead of breaking it between the two scenes of what Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave intended as Act II — which would at least have made the two acts of roughly equal length — they put the single intermission at the end of Act I and ended up with a 25-minute first act and an 85-minute second), where she and Alfredo are lounging around in robes that exactly match the furniture covers that have been thrown over the otherwise white couches. “How do they find each other?” Charles asked — and the production answered him when Dessay and tenor Matthew Polenzani opened their robes and flashed their underwear. Preposterously, the announcer, Deborah Voigt (who, like Renée Fleming, as an announcer is a very great opera singer), said that Decker had defended this nonsensical production as a return to Verdi’s original intentions, which were to set the opera in his own time (the premiere was in 1853) and give audiences the sense that this story was happening now. She also garbled the story, saying that the Italian censors (whom Verdi had to contend with his entire career, making stupid demands similar to those made by the officials who enforced the Motion Picture Production Code in Hollywood in the middle third of the 20th century) had demanded he change the sets and costumes to the 18th century. Actually, Traviata was premiered in the modern-dress of the period, it was a failure, so for the second production Verdi O.K.’d an 18th-century setting — and Traviata was an immediate hit and made it into the standard repertory.

I remembered that story when I was listening to a Met radio broadcast of Traviata in the late 1980’s (with the radiant soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Violetta) and it hit me that the way to restore the shock value Verdi and Piave intended Traviata to have would have been to set the piece in modern-day San Francisco, change Violetta’s disease from tuberculosis to AIDS, and have her spend the entire last act in a hospital bed in her home with her face made up to look like she’d broken out with KS lesions and her cheeks had become sunken. And if I were doing a modern-dress Traviata now, Violetta would be spending a lot of time at her computer because virtually all transactions in the modern-day version of the “oldest profession” — at least at Violetta’s level of it — start out on the Internet. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know the origin or basic premise of the plot, which began as Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel La Dame aux Camellias and has been filmed several times as Camille (most notably the 1922 version with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, and George Cukor’s 1936 masterpiece with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor), Violetta Valéry is a high-class courtesan (in the 20th century the au courant euphemism would have been “call girl” and today it’s “escort”) with a string of rich lovers, a lavish and pleasure-filled lifestyle funded by the gifts from her sugar daddies — and a bad case of TB that’s going to kill her in a few months. She’s also got an ardent suitor, a young man from Provence named Alfredo Germont, and in the first act he attends a party Violetta is hosting and tells her he’s genuinely in love with her and wants to take her away from The Life. At the end of the first act, in one of the greatest operatic scenes Verdi (or anyone else) ever wrote, Violetta mulls over his offer and even hears him calling to her from outside her building, then thinks better of it and declares that she has no use for serious relationships or emotional commitments, and she will continue to have a good time as long as her life and her charms hold out.

Nonetheless, in act two she and Alfredo have settled down in a house outside the city and are rapturously happy until two things happen: Alfredo learns that Violetta has been financing their lifestyle by selling her sugar daddies’ presents, and Alfredo’s father Giorgio turns up. Germont père demands that Violetta give up Alfredo because their affair is standing in the way of Alfredo’s sister’s engagement to a young man from a rich but thoroughly conventional family who would break it off at once if they found out their brother-in-law to be is having an affair with That Kind of Woman. Violetta is reluctant at first but then gives in, though she says she can only dump Alfredo if she can make him believe she’s given up on love altogether and is whoring herself out to rich men again. In Act Two, scene 2, Violetta, her new sugar-daddy Baron Douphol, and her friends are gambling at a casino when Alfredo turns up — as does his father — and an angry Alfredo, after a run of good luck at the card tables, takes his winnings and throws them in Violetta’s face, stating that everyone else there can witness that he has finally paid off the whore. (Even Daddy Germont is miffed at this one, telling his son that a gentleman never insults a woman in public no matter what she’s done.) Offstage, Douphol challenges Alfredo to a duel, and the curtain falls — only in this production it not only doesn’t fall but Violetta is left onstage while the orchestra plays the hauntingly beautiful music Verdi intended as the orchestral prelude to the last act. Violetta laments the loss of Alfredo and the progression of her disease, which is about to kill her at any moment, and eventually Alfredo turns up, once again offers to Take Her Away from All That, and she’s ready to go with him when Alfredo’s father also shows up, she sickens and weakens again, then has a final burst of energy; in her last moments she gives Alfredo a picture of herself and tells him to cherish it later on, after he’s met another, more respectable woman and married her. Then, just as she’s feeling better, she keels over, dead.

 La Traviata is one of the most remarkable operas ever written (to my mind, rivaled in the Verdi canon only by his last works, Otello and Falstaff), and one of the most amazing things about it is there isn’t really a villain: even the father is acting from what he considers to be noble motives, and in all three of the leads there is emotional and moral complexity far beyond what we expect from the usual stick-figures of 19th-century opera. It’s true that the tenor role gets lost in the shuffle — Luciano Pavarotti recorded Traviata with Joan Sutherland but didn’t like singing it on stage because it was a feature first for the soprano, then for the baritone playing Germont’s father and only third for the tenor — but it’s a refreshingly unmelodramatic story, Verdi and Piave tell it relatively unsentimentally and tone down the obvious tear-jerking elements, and in the hands of the right soprano Violetta comes alive as one of the most complicated and multi-dimensional characters in all opera. The big problem with Traviata is casting the lead: Rayfield commented it requires “a coloratura in Act I, a dramatic soprano in Act II, then a fragile lyric in the final act,” and said he doesn’t like it when the opera is cast with the sort of singer who does well in Verdi’s later and bigger-voiced operas. “My preferred Violettas tend to be Mozart specialists, like Ileana Cotrubas, Nuccia Focile, or more recently Patrizia Ciofi, where their vocal flexibility and, more pertinently, lighter color give the dying courtesan some naturalistic credibility,” Rayfield wrote. Not mine: my idea of a great Violetta is one of those rare birds known as a soprano drammatica d’agilitá, meaning one capable of both coloratura fireworks and dramatic inflection and credibility, and while some sopranos have come close to the role’s demands only two have, in my mind, really conquered it: Rosa Ponselle (whose 1935 live performance from the Met was fortunately preserved and released on CD by Pearl) and Maria Callas. Natalie Dessay is a light-voiced coloratura who’s closer to Rayfield’s ideal of Violetta than mine; she sings absolutely gorgeously (except for a few wobbly high notes — but then post-Callas it’s been a lot easier to get away with wobbly high notes than it was before) and she acts the part convincingly, but her acting is almost exclusively with her on-stage movements and gestures; she either won’t or can’t change the timbre of her voice enough to color the words and communicate Violetta’s emotions the way Callas did. If there’s one thing Dessay did in terms of giving me insights into Traviata I hadn’t had before, it’s that she negotiates the rapid-fire shifts in tone, tempo and emotional mood so well she convinced me that Verdi and Piave deliberately meant Violetta to be mentally ill, suffering from what would now be called bipolar disorder. The production also suffers from Dmitri Hvorotovsky’s casting as Germont père: he’s an excellent singer and sexy as all get-out — the problem is that he’s too sexy and he looks considerably hotter (and younger!) than the tenor playing his son. For that matter, the singer playing Baron Douphol also looks hotter than Polenzani.

But the worst part of this production is Decker’s staging: in the opening act the people who are supposed to be playing Violetta’s party guests, instead of mingling with her and each other like people at a real party, form a phalanx and charge towards her, making me wonder if Willy Decker was taking his directorial cues from Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935 (and indeed the cameraman on this production actually had a camera stationed in the flies and shot down towards the stage for a Berkeleyan tableau of the party guests — an annoying habit in these “live” Met broadcasts to give us vistas none of the paying audience could actually see), and at the end of the act, instead of having Alfredo sing the few lines with which he interrupts Violetta’s scena offstage come scritto, Decker has him re-enter and turns her big solo into a duet — thereby blowing one of Verdi’s most beautiful and carefully calculated dramatic effects. The production is also dominated by a giant clock — it hangs on Violetta’s wall in Act I and in Act II, scene 2, gets taken down off the wall to become first a giant roulette wheel in the casino (never mind that Piave’s text makes it clear that Alfredo is playing a card game!) and then a giant holder on which a woman who’s supposed to be a replacement for Violetta (wearing the same red dress Dessay did in Act I) is sprawled out and carried off, as if to say the world of empty gaiety Violetta tried to escape will just continue going on without her and she won’t be missed. There’s also a drag queen who puts on the red dress and wears a mask (at least in this production the masks are real, though they mostly look the same) that has a camellia painted on the face, indicating that he’s a Violetta impersonator, and aside from him Decker and Gussmann dress all the chorus members in suits and ties — and it’s a shock when we hear a woman’s voice coming from one of these androgynous bodies. And as if that weren’t weird enough, throughout the whole production there’s an aging figure lurking around and watching the action, who may or may not be the same person who turns up as Violetta’s doctor in the last act but apparently symbolically represents the Spirit of Death about to take her. I’ve read about (and sometimes seen) considerably worse opera productions than this Traviata, and certainly Dessay tries her best to bring the role to life with her gestures and movements (and though she doesn’t color her voice for drama she does sing absolutely gorgeously!), but through most of this we get the impression that she’s fighting the production to make Violetta live as a character instead of being able to use it, and we ache to see and hear her in a Traviata production set in the 19th century, or the 18th, or quite frankly any recognizable period of human life and culture at all.