Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Polarizing Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata
Metropolitan Opera
January 24, 2015

Yoncheva triumphs as Violetta
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: We were not planning on seeing yet another Traviata this year, but when the Met announced that Sonya Yoncheva was replacing Marina Poplavskaya in the January run of the show, we immediately got tickets. This Bulgarian soprano was a great revelation last year, when she bewitched us as Gilda in Rigoletto (where, again, she was stepping in for Aleksandra Kruzak) and since then we’ve been looking forward to catching her again in action. Our high expectations were not disappointed. Yoncheva really stole the show and delivered a truly memorable Violetta, with fluid colorful singing and acting ranging from sensual to frail. I was excited to see her succeed like this and to hear that her next role at the Met will be as Desdemona in next season’s opening night Otello, a very well deserved step-up from her usual being called last minute to replace another soprano.

The soprano on top of her game
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Yoncheva was lyrically forceful and effortlessly filled the Met, despite the fact that she just plain skipped one of the last coloratura phrases of the big act one aria, Sempre libera. Nevertheless, she had sass and was tragically playful in the role of Violetta. She added a touch that I’ve never seen any of the other singers do in this role and in this specific production: in act two Yoncheva mimicked Alfredo’s Io vivo quasi in ciel almost as if to show that deep down she is profoundly cynical. Her embrace of the folly of everything is consummate. We get a glimpse of the fact that Violetta is aware of her escapist behavior and that her choice to be with Alfredo for his exuberant boyish naive optimism is just more escapism. She actually sees through it all. Which to me is a persuasive reading of the story. It is an opera about death, yes, but it is also prominently features a character that represents the carefree party lifestyle always in search of the easy pleasures in life (Violetta and her mob of friends); and on the other hand a character who represents all the bright eyed, optimism that sees everything through the lenses of his flowery poetic language and rose colored glasses. It doesn’t take much to realize that Alfredo is not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed and it doesn’t make a lot of sense why Violetta runs off with him. Her meditations on this sudden rediscovery of love are enriched by the cynical take Yoncheva’s acting lent the character in Act II. After I first fell under the spell of her singing and stage presence as the demure and girlishly naive Gilda in last year’s revival of Rigoletto in Las Vegas, the fact that she so fully embodied the hardened cynicism of Violetta here is truly a testament to her versatility as an actress.

Violetta revels in the folly of everything
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: From the very moment that Russian baritone Aleksei Markov as Germont opened his mouth I was impressed. His is a very exciting voice: deep, effortless, Met-filling, with a smooth legato, expressively tender but also manly. Markov’s reminds me a bit of Hvrostovsky (though without the evil edge) and his vocal rendition of Germont was truly dominating. However, his acting was not very convincing, most of the time he just stood stiffly there moving his arms a bit for emphasis and pacing back and forth. Also, he seemed too young and hot for a Germont, the costume folks should have got him him a walking stick and greyed up his hair a bit as it just did not make much sense when he sings stuff like Oh, malcauto vegliardo. Though again, when singing is so good as Markov’s, everything else can be secondary.

Demuro has a moment
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Francesco Demuro does not have the most handsome tenor voice and his performance as Alfredo was a bit uneven, oscillating between full heart-wrenching moments and getting drowned by orchestra and other singers. His Libiam nei lieti calici was weak and I was afraid we had stumbled upon yet another tenor who just is not up to snuff at the Met, which is disappointing because Demuro is Italian and I was really hoping for more. Then he stepped up and delivered an Un di felice eterea that really moved me, as he found the sweet spot on the stage and bolted out Alfredo’s signature naïveté with emotive expressivity. Demuro also did have good stage presence, not exactly charismatic or terribly exciting but definitely better than the average male tenor we usually get at the Met for this role.
The dumb show at Flora's party in Act II
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
Lei: I particularly enjoyed Marco Armiliato’s conducting as I felt that he chose to put the voices more front and center than usual. Maybe this was also thanks to the stark and minimalist sets by Wolfgang Gussmann that not only were (mostly) visually stunning but also did wonders for acoustics. The party scenes are the most effective in Willy Decker’s production, with crowds of black tuxedoed people sharply contrasting against the circular white backdrop as they gravitate around Violetta in her red dress, at times even lifting her on a read leather sofa. At the same time, however, this stunning visual effect is achieved by having all chorus members and party characters (including Flora) dressed and coiffed like men, regardless of their gender. For some reason I did not notice this the other times I’ve seen Decker’s production, I guess that the party scenes are so gorgeous that I just got carried away. While the voices are clearly male and female, I really had to squint through my opera glasses to figure out where the female voices were coming from. While I get Decker’s idea of a polarizing tension between a male dominated society and Violetta, it’s an interpretation that’s on the verge of being too far fetched.

A hairy-chested Violetta parodies the love affair
Photo credit: Tutti Magazine
Another unscripted twist was the whole part of Flora’s party in Act II where, during the gypsies/matadors singing and dancing, a balding, hairy-chested man wears Violetta’s red dress and mimics her entire acting routine of the Act I party. Again, while I get the point of showing that in Alfredo’s mind his love story at this stage seems a mockery, the whole lengthy sequence had nothing to do with what was being sung and at points even got a bit creepy.

Violetta dies alone
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: As much as Decker’s production is gorgeous and visually exciting in the party scenes, it is depressing and unengaging in Act III, where really the viewer is not given much to work with other than few darkly dressed characters moving slowly through the dimly lit white stage (with the exception of the quick party interlude). Sure, there is still the omnipresent black and white clock as memento mori but even that at some point is taken away. At the end of the day, however, Decker is definitely successful in making La Traviata’s finale as devastating as possible, enhancing the sense of emptiness and despair when Violetta dies alone (as opposed to the more traditional Alfredo’s arms) in the middle of the white empty stage, with the other characters looming insignificantly in the background, again polarizing the heroine versus everybody else.  

– Lei & Lui

Yoncheva moves us as Violetta
Photo credit: Javier del Real

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