Willy Decker’s spare, modern staging of La traviata has graced the stages of Salzburg, Amsterdam and New York over the last eight years, with a number of leading sopranos assuming the role of Violetta. Last night, it was Natalie Dessay’s turn to don the iconic little red dress at the Met. It gives me no pleasure at all to report that it was extremely moving for all the wrong reasons.

Decker’s production is still an interesting take on the opera. The giant clock symbolising time running out for Violetta, even when she tries to pin back the hands, is a striking metaphor. The faceless chorus (women included), suited and booted, paw and hound her until a new, younger model takes her place when their interest wanes. Violetta’s horrified by the vision of the mysterious silent figure in Act I rather than suffering a sudden coughing fit, which is dramatically plausible. Decker’s decision to have key characters on-stage during scenes where Verdi has them absent throws particular things into a new light: Violetta is there from the start of Act II, so hears Annina tell Alfredo how hard up they are and that her mistress is selling her possessions to fund their idyllic life in the country; Germont witnesses far more of the party scene than usual; and Alfredo reappears to join Violetta for ‘Sempre libera’. His staging throws up a number of questions: Who is the mysterious, omnipresent figure by the clock? Is it Verdi himself? Or a figure symbolising Death? That it turns out to be Doctor Grenvil is something of a let-down, especially as his bedside manner seems to have deserted him in Act III as he paces the perimeter of the set giving Violetta scant attention!

Much is made of the white camellia – Verdi/ Grenvil hands one to her in each of the first two acts and she presents one to Alfredo, instead of the miniature portrait, at the end. I’m not sure Act III entirely works, especially having the four characters witnessing Violetta’s demise seated at the perimeter of the giant corrugated cardboard-looking set which traps her for the entire opera. It seems a particularly cold ending, but then Decker’s is a bleak view on celebrity and love.

Minor characters go for little here – Flora is virtually anonymous – so that the weight of the production lies on three pairs of shoulders. Decker’s sparse set requires big performances to fill it, which is where some of the cast stumbled.

Dessay has many of the dramatic qualities to assume the role of Violetta, but not the voice. After bowing out of the opening performances of this run due to a cold, it’s difficult to know how heavily her illness weighed upon this performance. Even in the rudest of health, Dessay’s is not a soprano of the size to do Violetta justice on such a vast stage. There have been light-voiced Violettas before – Ileana Cotrubas, for instance, whose recorded performances are magnificent and demonstrate a touching vulnerability, qualities shared by Ailyn Pérez’s recent assumption of the role at Covent Garden. But Dessay’s vocal fragility, although possibly in character, had you fearing not for Violetta, but for Dessay herself.

Performances of this type often have a ‘car-crash’ quality, where you unavoidably gawp at what’s unfolding, waiting expectantly for something even worse. This categorically wasn’t one of those. Instead, it was heartbreaking, as I found myself willing Dessay to struggle through it without further damage. It’s some time since I heard her sing live, but there has been a marked deterioration if last night’s cinema screening was anything to go by and if it’s a true reflection of her current vocal estate. From Act I her tone was brittle and vinegary. She also seemed very short-breathed, which affected her phrasing badly. At alarming moments the voice simply wasn’t there, like playing on a particularly stubborn clarinet reed which refuses to ‘speak’. It nearly cut out completely during ‘Ah, fors è lui’ and although she demonstrated some of her trademark coloratura agility in ‘Sempre libera’, it was a ragged account, topped unwisely by an interpolated E flat which was never attained. At times, the voice sounded hollow and although in character for the role of Violetta, it was obvious that her vocal limitations exhibited here were not a dramatic affectation. She was pretty downcast by the single interval. When asked which act of Traviata is the hardest, she responded ‘Act I’, apologising for missing her high note. For a coloratura soprano of Dessay’s ability, Act I should be the easiest. 

Dramatically, it was more than convincing, her fragile figure matched by her tiny vocal stature. The cry of ‘E tardi!’ after reading Germont’s letter was both heartfelt and there was a painful poignancy to ‘Addio del passato’, particularly the repeated ‘tutto fini’ at its conclusion. Violetta’s spirit was caught well, with the defiant smashing of the champagne flute against the wall at the mysterious interloper signifying her tempting fate and damning the consequences.

Matthew Polenzani was a decent Alfredo, reliably sung with a light, lyric tenor, even if slightly woodenly acted. In fairness, he’d be better in a production which didn’t leave alone in wide open spaces. He didn’t try to hog the stage, as one or two Alfredos can, and partnered Violetta and Germont père sensitively. His Act II cabaletta ‘O mio rimorso’ was particularly fine. While his tone is not especially Italianate, he phrases sensitively and doesn’t push his smallish instrument too hard.

The best singing of the performance easily came from Dmitri Hvorostovsky; a natural Verdi baritone who stole every scene he was in. He presented a colder Germont père than we’re used to at Covent Garden, laughing malevolently as he reads of Violetta selling her possessions to fund her life in the country. He also struck Alfredo with such apparent force that it drew gasps from the horrified Winchester audience. ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ was presented with his usual liquid tone and he produced his finest pianissimo in ‘Dite alla giovine’. ‘Di Provenza’ was lavished with washes of burnished tone, although there was a flaw towards the end. Germont’s cabaletta is often cut; here we got both verses – in Hvorostovsky’s hands they’re welcome, especially when the directed action is so convincingly handled.

Luigi Roni stalked Violetta as the Verdi/ Grenvil character, sounding doom-laden in his few lines in Act III, while Maria Zifchak was a feisty Annina, who should surely have been dismissed in Act II once Violetta heard her spilling the beans to Alfredo about their finances.

Fabio Luisi conducted a decent performance, coaxing his orchestra to play softer, nursing Dessay through Act III in particular. It was all terribly efficient, but lacked the drama or sensitive shaping I heard from the Welsh National Opera Orchestra recently under Julia Jones. The Met Opera Chorus didn’t have a particularly distinguished afternoon, drifting out of sync with the orchestra as they left Violetta’s party. I do worry that Luisi is burning the candle at both ends at present – conducting a marathon number of performances at the Met in short spaces of time. There’s only one Valery Gergiev in the conducting world.

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Mark Pullinger

Photographs © Marty Sohl

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