The Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb administration continues apace, replacing familiar, traditional productions of its warhorse repertory offerings with “edgy” new visions by (mostly) theater directors bent on clearing that vast stage of all extraneous decor, in many cases meaning nearly everything.
No one has gone further in this direction than Willy Dekker, whose 2003 Salzburg production which made stars of Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon makes its debut here this season. The set design is a pale grey semicircular wall against a stark white background, with a large round clockface – representing the dying heroine Violetta’s losing race against time – its most salient (and tiresomely overworked) detail. All I could think upon seeing this was, “It looks like a gigantic Swatch!”
I actually saw the video of the original Salzburg production and remember thinking that the design, maybe because of its simplicity, was rather effective, at least on film. However, experiencing it live on stage for three hours was another story. I certainly don’t miss the often vulgar Franco Zeffirelli production this replaced, which was an unnecessary, lesser revision of the over-the-top Second Empire plushiness of his mid-1980s conception which that one replaced. But, God knows, something more is needed than that damned clock, say, a bed, for Violetta to finally succumb to consumption in.
At what point I mused watching the Dekker, does a production officially announce itself as Eurotrash? For me, that moment came early on in the first act, when the universally tuxedo-clad chorus rushed onstage for Violetta’s party. “Oh, they’ve done without the female chorus,” I initially thought, and then, “What a lot of short, stout men! It’s as if Violetta landed in Munchkinland.” And then I realized that half of the singers were comprised of the Met female chorus in male drag, making it look like like a stage full of Lea DeLarias.
They lunged and raised champagne glasses in toasts and carried their Violetta (Marina Poplavskaya) around on a red couch and were, in a word, inane. Poplavskaya, who rather looks like Beverly D’Angelo, entered fully into the manic, foolish spirit of things, repeatedly donning and then taking off her high-heeled pumps until you wanted to stage a Shoe Intervention.
There’s no denying her vocal proficiency – this was a completely sung rendition of this perilously rangy role, with full value given to every note, from middle voice to coloratura stratosphere. But never once did she move me, as her performance lacked an essential vulnerability. The soprano has been quoted as saying, “There’s no weakness in Violetta, no weakness,” something she obviously believes, for she played her more like Brunnhilde, a fearless warrior woman taking on all male comers with a spirited defiance, wholly lacking in nuance or softer shadings.
The whole evening must be designated a lost opportunity, what with the casting-to-strength of Poplavskaya, the ardent Matthew Polenzani as her lover, Alfredo, and the strikingly exciting Andrzej Dobber as his disapproving father, Giorgio Germont. It’s rare in any LA TRAVIATA to find all three of these key roles so efficaciously filled, and Gianandrea Noseda’s hyper-sensitive conducting elicited wonderfully immediate colors from the familiar score. But Poplavskaya’s too-forcefully strong histrionic choice made it, to a great degree, emotionally null. One truly wonders what, in more perceptive directorial hands, her performance could be. Dobber, dignified, attractive and real, was particularly impressive, actually humanizing the infuriatingly upright Giorgio, without resorting to that cliched gambit of making him hypocritically lust for Violetta. I have always found this character’s second act domination of the opera a pain to sit through (maybe I never really recovered from Lionel Barrymore’s codgery hamminess in the role in Garbo’s film CAMILLE), but, for once, I was really involved in the situation and didn’t even want to kill him when he condescendingly sings to Violetta “Piangi, piangi.” (I’ve always felt like saying here, “Oh, YOU cry, motherfucker!”)
Polenzani possesses one of the most attractive tenor instruments in opera today, and he did a nice, moving job with his aria “De’ miei bollenti spiriti,” even though he had to perform it wearing boxer shorts (in Dekker’s wacky idea of what Alfredo would wear in the country) and, at the aria’s conclusion, barely made it off the stage with the trouble he had finding the catch to open that gray wristband, I mean wall. However, throughout, there was little real romantic chemistry between him and Poplavskaya, something I also ascribe to her unvariedly astringent performance.
The one scene that did work was the second act encounter between the younger and older Germont. Dekker’s “modern” attack here actually worked, as Polenzani did frustrated, slightly spoiled brat unwillingly listening to Daddy’s seasoned counsel, so distraught is he at the thought of Violetta leaving him (unbeknownst to him, at Daddy’s request). Polenzani’s stubborn instransigence – even covering his ears at one point – and Dobber’s unrelenting sagacity finally erupting into a bitch slap for sonny boy, brought rare, freshly observed vitality to a scene which usually plays out as so much tired melodrama.
The staging of the casino scene was just laughable. There were all those tuxedoed munchkins again, this time, wearing “Violetta” masks to taunt poor, forsaken Alfredo. Ridiculously, though, the masks looked left over from the Netrebeko production, and so were even more ridiculously wrong. Couldn’t the Met afford some simple Xeroxes of Poplavskaya’s face in an attempt to make this work? At any rate, the ugly masks didn’t resemble Netrebko so much as veteran soprano Licia Albanese, and how I dearly wished she had been there to boo this production as lustily as she did a 1990s Met updating of MADAME BUTTERFLY as she so famously did.
The idiotic choreographed cavortings of a bald, muscled “hunk” who dons the red dress that is Violetta’s only real costume change almost made me yearn for those prancing cows from the last Zeffirelly production (which were soon done away with, so risible were they). The whole act ended with Violetta and Alfredo clumsily posed on that blasted clock as he struggled to throw bank notes at her from a severely raked position.
Violetta’s protracted third act death scene really showed up this production for the insensitive gimmick that it is. With no bed to sink wearily upon, Poplavskaya just kept walking around and around the stage while singing about how weak she was, rendering that usually (literally) killer aria “Addio del passato” more of a niftily staged, melodramatic recital piece than a final, devastating cry of the heart. She didn’t even appear to be sick in the least, with her sturdy frame and luxuriant veil of blonde hair. Her final onstage moments, still pacing around as the life leaves her bones, suffered from a total aesthetic impoverishment that was not only a betrayal of Verdi but an insult to the audience’s credibility and intelligence.
And I haven’t even mentioned the omnipresent Doctor Grenvil (Luigi Roni) who keeps popping up in scenes in which he has no business, in Dekker’s addled mind’s eye, a constant reminder Of Violetta’s mortality. Of all Dekker’s absolutely stinking, appallingly facile ideas – really too many to enumerate – this, perhaps, was the most odiferous.