16 Nov 2008
La Traviata at the MET
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
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Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.
One might have been forgiven for thinking that both biology and chronology had gone askew at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday evening.
Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing: William Christie conducting some Charpentier.
The 36th Rossini Opera Festival in Rossini’s Pesaro! La gazza ladra (1817), La gazzetta (1816) and L'inganno felice (1812) — the little opera that made Rossini famous.
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Bernstein’s Candide seems to have more performance versions than Tales of Hoffmann.
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Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
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It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
When La Traviata had its first performance, in Venice in 1853, it was a scandal.
That was the point of making the story into an opera in the first place. Serious, tragic operas were not, in those days, set in contemporary times, or among bourgeois persons. The management of La Fenice was sufficiently nervous to backdate the sets and costumes by a hundred years to the era of Manon Lescaut, but no one was fooled – everyone knew about Dumas’s recent, somewhat autobiographical hit novel and play, La Dame aux Camellias.
But more: La Traviata, for all its denunciation of hypocritical society, underlined a moral: once a woman had been around the block, she could never go home again, make a successful marriage, live happily ever after, become somebody’s mother, for heaven’s sake! It was important that this moral be made clear because, even back in 1853, everyone knew it wasn’t true – women of dubious reputation made prominent, respectable marriages all the time – even in Italy, never mind Paris. (For men with a past, of course, there had never been a problem.) In Italy, where divorce would not be an easy matter for another hundred years, marriages ended and divorced persons made alternative arrangements, accepted by their friends and families with greater or lesser indifference. Violetta simply had bad luck – and bad microbes. (Her original, Marie Duplessis, the high-class courtesan who discarded Dumas fils, wedded a nobleman but died of consumption at 23.)
The Met’s overcrowded Traviata has been touched up, polished and primed because Act II was telecast as part of the opening night Gala – but also to give a little more clarity to some of the muddier moments of the overblown Zeffirelli staging. There is a new conductor, Paolo Carignani, who leads a taut, lean performance without skimping on necessary sentiment – a waltz is a waltz is a waltz. His tempos are a bit frenetic in Act I – the singers seemed to find them too fast as well – but throughout the evening the climaxes evolved naturally from what had gone before, and no one was drowned out.
Anja Harteros is a tall, slim, handsome lady of aristocratic mien, appropriate to the Countess in Figaro, the role of her Met debut. In the party scene, where a tiara perches atop her dark curls, she resembles some frozen, forbidding royal of World War I vintage, which did not make for a sympathetic figure. I’d have liked her a lot more without the sparkles up top.
Her voice, when not warmed up, is harsh, even acid. In Act I she was not at all appealing, coloratura uneven, pitch sometimes off target, and her top capable of no optional high notes. She was not, in this scene, a Violetta, and it was unclear what role would be suitable – Lady Macbeth perhaps, where a large, ugly sound and uneven coloratura are excusable. But by Act II, she had calmed down – or the conductor was not pushing her so hard – and she made rich, creamy sounds, especially at “Più non esiste – or amo Alfredo” (an exquisite moment, and one that usually goes by unremarked). Her “Amami, Alfredo,” was capable but not demented – she is entirely too collected to play a woman losing emotional control. The last act was her best. The voice then revealed a sweetness when singing softly – it is the brilliance of the first act that escapes her, that hardens her sound.
A scene from Verdi's "La Traviata" with Anja Harteros as Violetta.
At least her height means she is one Violetta who does not look absurd beside the inevitable Baron Douphol of seven-foot-tall John Hancock, who has sung the part 36 times since this production premiered. Among other novelties this year: at curtain rise, he and Violetta were on the stairs, preparing to retire for a night’s romp, when their rowdy friends burst in, to his manifest annoyance. There is less picnicking on cushions in the opening scene than there used to be. But I miss the glove of challenge Hancock originally threw down to Alfredo at the end of Act II – the music expresses it, the era demands it, why has the Met deleted it? Do they think modern audiences would laugh? Would they? Would it matter?
The evening’s Alfredo, Massimo Giordano, is short, stocky, and not very handsome in the long “romantic” hairpiece that looked so good on Jonas Kaufmann. Giordano does not possess an instrument of exceptional beauty, but his instincts are musical; he does not bray and his high notes fill the room. He pays attention to the filigree in his cabaletta, and he launches himself into impassioned phrases with a nice sense of line. His finest moment – and Harteros’s – came during “Parigi, o cara,” sung caressingly, filling the house softly and accompanied tenderly – for a few minutes they were the perfect Alfredo and Violetta, singing to comfort each other, and we happened to overhear – a lovely bit of intimacy in this outsize occasion. (Harteros could use this voice for Lady M’s sleepwalk.)
Germont was Željko Lučić, who sang Macbeth last season: a real Verdi baritone, with a smooth, mellow sound as large as you could desire, and an actor’s judgment of the effect of each word. Most Germonts either stand stiffly or become excessively, even tearfully, sympathetic to the lady with a past whom they encounter in Act II; Lučić’s body language showed a provincial’s discomfort in this sophisticated milieu, and he had the grace to seem downright embarrassed at the sordid sacrifice he requested of her. A bit of a sob frilled each line of the second verse of “Di Provenza,” and I thought for a moment they might not cut his cabaletta. Cut it they did; the number is a pointless convenienze, but for once I wanted to keep it in, just to continue reveling in his sound. Ever-reliable Theodora Hanslowe sang Flora and Kathryn Day sounded clear as a bell in the usually fade-out role of Annina.
With Lučić as the thane, Harteros as his lady, Giordano as Macduff and lively Maestro Carignani urging the witches on, a potentially great cast for Macbeth currently holds the stage in the Met’s Traviata.