[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]

Follow Spot
by Michael Portantiere

Not Your Grandmother's Traviata

  • Traviata1-edit.jpg

    Whenever I see a new production of a classic in which the work in question is radically reconceived, I remember something that the great John Raitt once said to me. During the course of an interview in the late '90s, Raitt and I discussed director Nicholas Hytner's revival of Carousel. When I asked him to describe his reaction while watching this new take on a show in which he had starred some 50 years earlier, he said (and I'm paraphrasing only slightly), "One minute you're thinking, 'That's a great idea,' and the next minute you're thinking, 'What did they do THAT for??!!'"

    I've had a similar reaction to many new stagings of time-honored plays, musicals, and operas -- including the Willy Decker production of Verdi's La Traviata, which was a hit in Europe and has now come to the Metropolitan Opera as a replacement for the previous, very elaborate, much maligned production by Franco Zeffirelli.

    This sure ain't your grandmother's Traviata. Wolfgang Gussmann's stark set looks like a cross between an operating room, a bare-walled art gallery, and a tennis court. The stage is dominated by a huge, tilted clock (see photo), and the only pieces of furniture are a few large couches. When Act II, Scene 1 come around, the fact that it takes place in a country house is indicated only by a cyclorama with a floral design hanging above and behind the set proper, and by Violetta and Alfredo wearing bathrobes of the same design.

    The production's aggressively post-modern look and sensibility is a problem in terms of the storytelling. As any opera buff will tell you, the central drama of Traviata is set in motion when the courtesan Violetta Valery is persuaded by the hidebound conservative Giorgio Germont to give up her romance with his son, Alfredo, and thereby remove from the family a mark of scandal that might prevent the marriage of Germont's daughter/Alfredo's sister to a respectable young man. All of this makes perfect sense in the social and moral context of the mid-19th century, but not so much in the modern era. Though Decker's Traviata isn't set in any specific time or place, the costumes and scenic design clearly communicate "now" -- and the idea that Violetta's past as a kept woman would be a major issue for these terribly au courant folks is hard to swallow.

    Anachronisms aside, many of Decker's directorial ideas don't make a whole lot of sense. The members of the chorus, all of them clad in black tuxedos, are for some reason depicted as a malevolent force, constantly taunting the lovers. The symbolism of having Violetta disrobe down to her slip several times is muddled. In Act II, as written, Alfredo is supposed to surprise Violetta while she's writing a farewell note to him; here, we never see her writing, though she still says just beforehand that she is going to do so, and Alfredo still interrupts her with the question, "To whom were you writing?" And who knows what point Decker was trying to make in having Alfredo sit about 20 feet away from Violetta, with his eyes glued to the floor, as the poor woman collapses and dies in the final moments of the opera?

    For many who attend this production, the most unpardonable sin of all will be that some of Decker's staging has an adverse effect upon the music. Despite conductor Ginandrea Noseda's noble effort to keep it all together, the performance I attended was quite ragged in spots, seemingly because the soloists and choristers were focused more on Decker's often obtrusive blocking than on singing in time with the orchestra. (One of the chief offenders or victims, depending on how you look at it, was tenor Scott Scully, who maddeningly lagged behind in every measure of his brief role of Gastone.) Also, the en masse movements of the choristers result in a great deal of clumping that's sometimes so loud as to distract from the gorgeous sounds emanating from the orchestra pit..

    All of the above notwithstanding, soprano Marina Poplavskaya (Violetta) and tenor Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo) prove to be two of the most prodigiously talented singing actors (or acting singers) I've ever seen at the Met. They make the most of Decker's better ideas, such as bringing Alfredo back on stage for the last section of "Sempre libera" so that Violetta can sing her defiant expression of freedom to him rather than to the audience, and having Violetta on hand at the start of Act II to frolic romantically with her lover in their country house. Another strong presence is baritone Andrezj Dobber as Germont, although his voice sounds a bit strained in some of the role's higher passages.

    So, there you have it. Maybe it's best to think of Willy Decker's Traviata as a sort of diuretic or laxative that the Met has taken to clear its system of the Zeffirelli production's excesses: It does the job, but it's not something you want to rely on for an extended period.

    Published on Friday, January 7, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
    For more articles by Michael Portantiere, click the links below!

    Previous: The Best of 2010

    Next: Boys Night Out

    Or go to the Archives

[Broadway Ad Network]

[Broadway Ad Network]