Wookiee Hut Theatre Reviews presents:
La Traviata
Review by Diana, Snorrlax, FengShui, DarkLaddy

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play
La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, Jr.

Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda

Production: Willy Decker

Set and Costume Design: Wolfgang Gussmann

Lighting: Hans Toelstede

Choreographer: Athol Farmer

Cast: Violetta: Marina Poplavskaya; Alfredo: Matthew Polenzani; Germont: Andrzej Dobber

Rating: Super Star Destroyer — intimidates and pleases!

"Traviata" means "one who has gone astray," and the title character is a courtesan, who is reviled by polite society for having sold her body, which director Willy Decker points out is "breaking a law." Whether that law is of God or men, he is not stating specifically.

Redemption is an attractive theme in entertainment, but to make it drama, perhaps showing that redemption is not the happiest thing is powerful.

Personally, I've never liked watching La Traviata — it's a pathetic story of a courtesan who turns out to be selfless and loving, who dies at the end. All those Italian tragedies which turn out to be easily parodied black comedies ... and always presented as stand-and-shriek or park-and-barks — the singers stand up and sing in front of a huge set that swallows sound, or just sits there for no reason than the audience has no imagination or expectations.

Then Tosca was made into a new production by the Metropolitan Opera, and the Luc Bondy production was slammed as horrible by none other than the previous guy, Franco Zeffirelli, who claimed to be following the instructions of Puccini himself when creating the overly realistic and heavy sets he's famous for. And I realized, all at once, it wasn't Puccini or Tosca which I'd despised ... it was Zeffirelli's sets and production! And we're not alone:

Popularity has tended to dull La Traviata's once vivid impact. It has turned into a costume drama, a velvet-lined Masterpiece Theatre miniseries. For over 20 years, the opera has been particularly ill-served at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1989, the Met opened a Franco Zeffirelli production that the critic Daniel Mendelsohn called "sumptuously unimaginative." The sets were enormous and ornate; it was hard to locate the characters, let alone follow their drama or feel its relevance. It was replaced in 1998 by an even more sumptuous, even less imaginative production by, once again, Franco Zeffirelli.
— Zachary Woolfe, NY Observer, 1/4/2011

Oh, thank goodness that the tide turned!

This new Traviata requires you to focus on the singers, and not on the beauty or detail of the sets. It consists of what looks like the marble entrance at the opera house itself, with nothing more ornamental than a marble bench and a huge clock that kept real time or spun at increasing speeds, keeping track not only of time but of Violetta's time left alive.

This set also funneled and reflected sound so gloriously. Even when the singers were facing the back of the stage, and singing into walls, their voices projected all the way to the back and top of the opera house, where we were. You could swear that they were right behind you, singing over your shoulder. The walls are corrugated and baffled the sound really effectively; still, you did not hear breaths or panting — just the glorious noise you expect from real pros who sing gorgeously.

It was a modern and stark set, but it'd be a mistake to say it was "Eurotrash" or the reviled regietheatre — this set was thoughtful and full of psychological and overt ideas and symbols. Anything that didn't support the central tale was revised. The middle party scene with the "gypsies from a far off and exotic land" was turned into a drunken carousement taunting Alfredo (having freshly lost Violetta), rather than an odd ballet that seemed to be inserted for the sake of some mistress of the composer's who wanted to be in an opera ...

The whole production focused on Violetta, the courtesan, who was played by the youthful and lithe Marina Poplevskaya (who had played the virtuous Elizabetta in Don Carlo just the month before). She was in a flirty red dress and high heels that any of us would have wished for ourselves. She flipped her shoes on and off, was carried on a red sofa by her admirers, the center of the party, and it's life — even though it was obvious from the opening strains of the excellent orchestra that she was dying.

Matthew Polenzani sang the role of Alfredo Germont, the young bourgeois man who'd fallen in love with the courtesan and won her heart. His father interferes by pleading with Violetta to leave his son, for the pride of the family. The intensity of the passion and distress conveyed by Polenzani upon discovering Violetta has left him was incredible, and made us wonder what had happened in his personal life that he could perform so heavily and convincingly. Andrej Dobber, as Geroges Germont, and Polenzani went at each other with hammer and tongs; at one point, the father struck the son, slapping him to force him to his sences. Alfredo dropped to the ground, crouched in pain and humiliation, while his father looked away in shame and disgust. Like many tales in opera, this is about the reviled and successful prostitute who turns out to be good and selfless with great integrity, in contrast to the "good" people around her who use her. But what is it with the obsession about death? She always dies in the end!

But then again, without the death obsession adn the fear and acceptance of death, this opera wouldn't have the whole glorious third act. The stage is empty — even the clock is taken away, symbolizing the end of her time, and yet this is not a heavy-handed approach. Violetta has nothing left but the friendships of her companion Annina (Maria Zifchak) and Dr. Grenvil, sung by Luigi Roni — who had little to sing, but was on stage nearly the whole night. Roni was sitting next to the clocks since the doors to the theater opened. He was so still that we wondered if he was a statue till he avoided Violetta who tried to embrace him during the overture.

Based on a semi-biographical story by Alexnadre Dumas fils, this tale is one of textures and contrasts, and this set with its superlative singers really brought the story to focus. Even so, pretty delatils like the copious backdrops and fabrics depicting camellia blossoms (and the flower she gives to Alfredo, which permits his to see her again when the bloom wilts) is important, but it's not important to catch the context. You can just appreciate it as set dressing. Though we can say it's not about the overblown and clunky Zeffirelli-style sets, the set is very important. This set defined the hoards that followed and defined Violetta's life, dressed in businesswear and tuxedoes. They come to the party as a creepy, amorphous crowd — a wolf pack of hungry marauders — which they really do, don't they? They think as one, looking to party hard like a bunch of uniform and unified frat boys. The girls are dressed in black suits too, so non-individual are they, and are intermingled with the raucous boys. It's as if to say that in Violetta's world, everyone is a predatory male who wants something from her, even the women.

The great thing about watching an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House is the luxury of never having to worry about the quality of the music. It's alwasy spectacular and flawless. So, like not having to worry about the set getting in the way of the performance, it increases our enjoyment of the singers themselves, the only real variable. Sure, you need stellar performers who look the parts, but you kind of always needed that. In fact, the first performance of this opera was a flop, and Verdi wrote a now-famous letter wondering if it was his opera or the singers that torpedoed the presentation; apparently, the soprano was too fat to be believable as a tubercular prostitute desired and fêted in mid-high society.

In a sense, it was a perfect production, and a perfect performance. And best of all, it transformed my ambivalence of a great opera into admiration and enjoyment. A sensitive and thoughtful production is more important than one's preconceived notions, so an educated, open-minded audience is important to move the art form into the future. This production is repeated at the gruelling page of twice a week till the end of January, and it's mostly sold out. But we're going to try and see it again!

Also, this production originated a few years ago in Salzburg, and that production was recorded and is for sale, starring Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, and Thomas Hampson (who we'd seen in a brilliantly space and thoughtful Eugene Onegin at the Met a few seasons ago, too). That's a tremendous production, and people were fearful the Met could not reproduce it for their New Year's Gala. Despite people who "aren't into symbolism" (one guy didn't "get" the clock — honestly, how lazy or stupid do you have to be to not get the between your eyes symbolism here?), it still moved people who were drenched in the beautiful music of Verdi — reborn, as it were!

Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org

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