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Natalie Dessay as Violetta [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
27 Jul 2009

An Evening at Père Lachaise [Or, Natalie Dessay Attempts Violetta]

A fine-sounding Santa Fe Opera orchestra, excellently conducted by Frédéric Chaslin, was barely into the haunting, delicate prelude to Act I of La traviata, when a funeral procession, wet umbrellas unfurled, arrived to wend its way though a stage full of big grey marble rectangular boxes, handsomely abstracted tomb shapes, soon to be the courtesan Violetta Valéry’s destination. So much for the Prelude to Act I.

Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata

Violetta: Natalie Dessay; Alfredo: Saimir Pirgu; Gastone: Keith Jameson; Germont: (through Aug. 17) Laurent Naouri, (Aug. 22, 26, 29), Anthony Michaels-Moore; Douphol: Wayne Tigges; Dr. Grenvil: Harold Wilson. Conductor: Frederic Chaslin. Director: Laurent Pelly. Scenic Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.

Above: Natalie Dessay as Violetta

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera


_MG_2947a.gifSaimir Pirgu (Alfredo)

During the intensely dramatic prelude to Act IV, anonymous stage figures in half light, darted about draping the tombs with white shrouds preparing the death scene of Violetta — so much for that essential orchestral moment; again our attention had fled. For Flora Bervoix’s Act III party, the weighty boxes, artfully arranged at varying heights, served as pedestals to show off swaying party girls in lavish 20th century dancing gowns. “Dancing on her grave?” Santa Fe’s new mounting of Verdi’s opera, largely the work of a director Laurent Pelly’s French team and the prima donna Natalie Dessay, seemed an evening at Père Lachaise, almost literally, but Lachaise-manqué, transmogrified. The conceit was interesting; many in the audience liked it and enjoyed its innovative energy, yet it was, as we say, for its own sake — it added no new insight into the old opera. It could also get in the way.

_MG_3847a.gifLaurent Naouri (Germont) & Natalie Dessay (Violetta)

Opinion divides on Mme. Dessay, as it usually will when coloraturas essay Violetta’s essentially dramatic role. Through history, light-voiced divas such as Galli-Curci, Lily Pons and Roberta Peters have tried and faded with the fatal part. Deconstructively ruinous at Santa Fe was Dessay’s Act II costume — dull, shapeless cotton slacks and a large man’s-style white overshirt; barefoot. She was a 1960s hippie caught at home. The problem was it robbed her of much dignity: and Violetta’s self-denying dignity is key to the effect of this central act, with the two Germont men, each asking her something different, and opposing. She is cruelly torn; it takes all her resources to survive intact. By dressing her way down for the big confrontation scenes, Dessay’s Violetta lost a lot of feminine stature and, unintentionally I am sure, pushed her comic-seeming side; she looked raffish and moved in an almost Carol Burnett way — all wrong. Producer Pelly got this act badly off key. To do anything to defeminize Violetta is a grave mistake. Violetta must be poignantly believable in Act II — or her show does not fly, hélas!

The device of the graveyard underlying the whole opera seemed an over-kill, ultimately a kind of director’s bad joke. Once again, where was dignity, seriousness? La traviata is a mid-19th century tragic opera, with many social overtones; it is most certainly to be taken seriously. But I did not sense a lot of that with M. Pelly, though the performing artists worked hard. Where was letting the music speak for itself (as in the two preludes mentioned above)? Is it anything less than an affront to second-guess Giuseppe Verdi in judging the effect of his music, and what it takes to put it over in theatrical terms? Opera lovers will have their own views on this. In an interesting touch, Père Germont was costumed and played as a 19th century figure, and that he surely is; but Violetta is no less so, and to take her out of that cultural milieu was counterproductive.

_MG_6138a.gifNatalie Dessay (Violetta)

Finally, Mme. Dessay is not a Violetta. As seen on the Santa Fe stage, she is a little bird — in Act I a frantic, drunken little bird with an orange wig and bright red and pink plumage; by the end she was a plucked pullet flopping about the stage. Her voice does not have the dynamic or tonal range to explore the full dimensions of Verdi’s music or Violetta’s emotions; it is almost always the same color. She was wise to sing both stanzas of “Addio del passato…” for a soft pianissimo tone is her best asset just now, and she long held the aria’s final p. high-A. A singular moment. I like Mme. Dessay a lot, and she’s had a wonderful career, especially considering two throat surgeries and a baritone husband. I think she has the spunk, but ultimately not enough vocal resource to do justice to Verdi’s paragon soprano role. The surprise of the evening was the excellence of Parisian baritone Laurent Naouri in the role of Père Germont. His well-voiced traditional portrayal played strongly against the eccentricity of the rest of the production; he showed vividly how this wonderful opera should be treated. The young Alfredo was debut artist Saimir Pirgu, an Albanian tenor with a pleasing voice and manner, graced by a nice smile. In the latter stages of the opera he warmed to some beautiful soft-toned singing.

J. A. Van Sant ©2009

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